How Irish System is Exploiting Au Pairs
The traditional image of an Au Pair in Ireland was a 19 year old French girl who came here to learn English. She would live with an Irish family, for about six months, and everybody would get along famously. It was ideal.
That ideal is in ruin and has been replaced by an exploitative reality. As demonstrated by the recent Mohammed Younis case, the Irish system appears reluctant to protect the vulnerable.
Childcare costs in Ireland are the highest in the EU and account for 35% of the average family income compared to an EU average of 12%, according to the OECD. Families are facing economic difficulties they never faced before. They simply cannot afford the cost of €3,000 per month (for three young children) for professional childcare.
Families therefore need a cheaper alternative and, at around €600 per month, the traditional yet unprofessional Au Pair is making childcare affordable for a number of Irish households. The traditional Au Pair is being exploited. Exploited in the family home and the Government is doing little about it.
The profile of the Au Pair changed from being almost exclusively European teenagers to include young women in their mid-20s from Latin America.
Their treatment was written about as far away as Venezuela, in the on-line journal El Universal. That journal documented the negative experience of one Venezuelan Au Pair, whom this Journalist spoke to. The Philippine Government even took the extraordinary step of banning their citizens from taking such jobs in Ireland and the EU for a period of 15 years.
Failings of the system
It is estimated by the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) that up to 10,000 people work in the home in Ireland, yet it is not exactly known how many work as Au Pairs. One of the reasons it is not known is that legally, Au Pairs do not exist and there is no register. They do not exist and they therefore do not have any legal protection.
However, Citizens Information define an Au Pair as, “…a young person who is treated as a family member in exchange for certain services…it is a voluntary arrangement between a private household and a private individual”. Au Pairs are not employees, or ‘Domestic Workers’, and should not be treated as one.
However, they point out that simply “…using the term ‘Au Pair’ does not mean an employment contract does not exist”. Using the term ‘Au Pair’ does not exempt a family from legislation or employers’ duties nor does it allow them to use an Au Pair to do the job of a Domestic Worker. A Domestic Worker is employed to carry out various duties in the home and, unlike Au Pairs, they have full legal protection.
Calling someone an Au Pair while using them as a Domestic Worker, is exploitation. According to my investigation, highlighted in the following two case-studies, exploitation is widespread in Irish family homes.
Case Study One (face to face interview)
Angela (not her real name) from Brazil, worked as an au pair in Cavan town from 7:30am to 10:30pm, four days per week, and minded three children. In addition to her bed and board she was paid a mere €120 per week. She had no written contract.
To complicate matters, one of the children required medical attention three times a day and Angela did not have any medical expertise. The mother worked as a nurse yet played little part in raising the children. Angela did everything from playing with the children, watching movies with them and making dinner for the whole family four days a week.
Even when Angela finished work she would still continue working in her free time. She also washed the clothes of the family, including their underwear. She was there to be au pair and to improve her English, yet she ended up cooking and cleaning, looking after the children full time and doing extra babysitting hours which she did not get paid for. She was effectively a Domestic Worker. She was exploited.
Case Study Two (face to face interview)
Maya – Venezuala (not her real name) came to Dublin in June 2014. She was told that she would just look after children and that she would get €150 per week for 45 hours work. The previous au pair had been paid €200 per week. There were three children.
On holiday in Bulgaria, Maya looked after the children at all times and when they returned to Ireland matters got worse. She needed to return to school to fulfil her visa requirements, however, her family told her she could not as she had to work full time.
Maya had to clean and vacuum the entire three storey house and iron everybody’s clothes.
On one occasion she was told to bring the child into the city centre for the day. She was given €5 to cover all costs so she was out of pocket and not reimbursed by the family.
She experienced psychological abuse by the mother as she told her off about coming home late and often asked “why are you moody today?”. Maya felt she was getting into her head.
The mother used scare tactics when Maya asked for a contract and a pay increase. She said it would mean more tax and she was warned never to tell anybody she worked for them.
In November 2014, Maya felt she could not continue so she decided to leave. When she informed the mother of this she “went crazy” and attempted to make her feel guilty. Maya did not tell the mother the real reasons for her departure as she needed a reference. Finally the mother said “if you what to leave, you can go now”! Maya was forced to move out with immediate effect and nowhere to live.
The smallest child demanded a lot of attention and was aggressive, punching Maya on two different occasions. If the child woke up in the morning it was Maya, not the parents, who went to her. The final straw for Maya was when the 13 year old daughter told Maya that she had to leave as “my mother doesn’t care about you”.
Maya and Angela’s cases were typical of a number of Au Pair stories I heard.
Best International Practice
Swiss and German systems, are seen as the benchmark of good international practice in the Au Pair industry. This is how they compare to the Irish system.
- 4 paid weeks holidays per year.
- Families expected to contribute towards the Au Pair’s German language course.
- Treated as a normal employee.
- Au Pairs receive a written contract.
- Once they pass their probationary period they cannot be dismissed without one month’s notice.
- Families must contribute toward the social and health insurance of the Au Pair.
- The Au Pair is also entitled to sick and unemployment benefit.
As there is no legal definition there is no legal requirement. These are mere recommendations based on the requirements of the Irish National Au Pair Association (INAPA).
- 2 weeks holiday per year.
- No requirement that families pay for a language course.
- Dismissed at a moment’s notice.
INAPA, who represent the Au Pair industry in Ireland, claim to be “continuously raising the standards for the Au Pair industry in Ireland”. They recommend a 35 hour working week, plus babysitting, for Au Pairs. They claim the Au Pair programme is culturally and linguistically based. The case studies would reject this.
INAPA make no commitment on sick pay and claim that being sick for more than four days could mean “…the Au Pair returns home and her allowance is suspended”. Their dismissal policy is ambiguous stating, “an Au Pair can be dismissed from her role with immediate effect if there is an allocation of abuse of the children in any way”. This policy goes on to state that, upon dismissal an Au Pair would receive, “…paid notice, but if there is inaccurate information provided on the application, this cannot be guaranteed”. INAPA were unresponsive to my many requests for clarification of this policy and other related queries.
From talking to Au Pairs in Ireland, the MRCI and researching various Au Pair websites, I discovered that the average weekly pay for an au pair in Ireland ranges from €85 to €150. This is for a 30 to 35 hour working week. In addition, Au Pairs are asked to work at least two evenings (8 hours) babysitting. Babysitting is almost always unpaid.
Au Pairs get free bed and board. This is valued at €54.13 per week according to the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA). This means that, on average, Au Pairs receive €139.13 per week, which equates to €3.24 per hour. This is much lower than the lowest possible minimum wage rate in Ireland of €6.92, which any employee in Ireland receives in their first year of employment after turning 18. This rate increases to €8.65 after two years in employment. I did not discover any increase in pay among the Au Pairs I interviewed.
Almost every Au Pair agency in Ireland, that this journalist investigated, could be seen to freely advertise ‘Au Pair Programmes’ as 35 hour working weeks plus additional babysitting hours. These were agencies affiliated to the INAPA. This is despite the European Committee for Au Pair Standards (ECAPS), a committee established in 2006 to define Au Pair standards in Europe, recommending a maximum 30 hour week which includes babysitting hours.
According to Eurostat, the average working week in Ireland is just over 38 hours. These workers are legally entitled to 4 weeks holidays per year and are fully protected by employment legislation. They work the same number of hours as Au Pairs yet they get twice the holidays and substantially greater pay.
Protection for Au Pairs and the role of NERA
NERA inspectors, appointed by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation, carry out inspections of all workplaces to ensure compliance with employment related legislation. This includes workplaces in the family home. However, inspections are rare. Since 2011 they have just carried out 143 inspections in the home involving domestic work and have only recovered €6,800 in unpaid wages. In all of these cases the family were given prior notice of their arrival. In fact they only visit families who have already registered with Revenue. There was no evidence to sugest that they attempt to visit unregistered houreholds.
NERA did not comment on this nor why they have only followed up on wage payments and not on other contractual obligations of families using working people in their home.
None of the Au Pairs I spoke with are aware of the existence of NERA.
When this journalist contacted political parties there appeared to be no interest in the plight of Au Pairs. Political party concerns are on child protection and the economic needs of families, not on Au Pairs.
The Government responded by saying that, as there is no legal definition of an Au Pair there is nothing they can do. This is alarming and could lead to a repeat of the Mohammed Younis case. Mohammed was exploited by his employer and awarded €91,000 by a Rights Commissioner. Initially the High Court then ruled against this, in August 2012, as he was an undocumented worker so they held his contract could not be recognised. However, in the last week the Supreme Court upheld the original dceision. As a number of Au Pairs in Ireland are from outside the EU, the same fate could just as easily befall them.
Peadar Tóibín of Sinn Féin, Clare Daly and Roisín Shortall have all raised the matter of Au Pair exploitation in the Dáil, yet it has so far fallen on deaf ears and stimulates the standard “…there is no legal definition…” response.
Where to from here?
Au pair – meaning “at par” or “equal to”, indicating that the relationship is intended to be one of equals
If Au Pairs fail to be legally recognised or an effective inspection system implemented, exploitation will continue. In the meantime, NERA need to be pro-active in inspecting all houses that use home employees of any description, to differentiate between Domestic Workers and Au Pairs and take the necessary action. In the absence of such practice, the Au Pair will be anything but “at par”.