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Au pairs balance between cultural exchange and work

Au pairs balance between cultural exchange and work

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

How far does our concern for young people’s working environment stretch? Does it go as far as to cover Filipino au pairs in Norway and Denmark? This month saw the start of a trial in Oslo against a host family who allegedly forced two au pairs to work 96 hour weeks.

In Denmark research papers have been published looking at whether some au pairs have been victims of trafficking. They pay a lot of money to agencies which link them up with host families, ending up in a debt trap they cannot get out of – in effect a kind of forced labour. In 1998 the Philippines introduced a ban on its citizens travelling abroad as au pairs, after a series of serious abuse cases. The ban was lifted for Denmark, Norway and Switzerland in 2010, followed by several other countries in 2012.

It is evident that the kind of cultural exchange that au pairs were supposed to be part of no longer fits the situation for a large majority of them. Au pair means ‘equal to‘ and the point was that au pairs should be treated almost like a family member. According to current regulation in Norway they should not do more than 30 hours of childcare or light housework a week, they are entitled to two days off as well as housing and food. The host family should even pay their return ticket between their home country and Norway. They should also be allowed to learn the local language.

New rule on 1 July

A new rule introduced on 1 July this year means a host family can loose the right to have an au pair for one, two or five years if they fail to follow these regulations. If they commit an offence punishable by three months in prison or more, the host family quarantine could last up to ten years. 

“There are an estimated 3,000 au pairs in Norway. 80 to 90 percent of them come from the Philippines. People look at au pairs differently in Sweden and Norway. In Sweden it is considered to be work, in Norway it is cultural exchange,” says Magnhild Otnes who runs the Au pair Center On Equal Terms in Oslo.

The centre was established to help both au pairs and host families.

“We focus on au pairs’ rights. It’s me and a legal expert in the office. We can negotiate solutions when conflicts arise – it is often about money which has not been paid. If matters go to court we can provide a lawyer from the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees, the largest trade union within the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions.”

Work most important

As if to underline the proximity to the courts, the Au pair Center shares an entry hall with Borgarting District Court. Only a few cases end up in court, but the married couple now charged with forcing two au pairs in a row not only to work in the house, but also in their food shop nearly 24 hours a day, risks five years in prison.

“Work is the main reason Filipinas come here, not cultural exchange. There might be some Polish au pairs who have read Knut Hamsun and want to see his home country, but they are few and far between. The Filipina women are here to make money, that is the main reason, but that doesn’t mean that their stay can still become some sort of a cultural exchange,” says Magnhild Otnes.

Au pair 2

We visit Au pair Center on a Sunday, when it operates a cafe, and meet Beata from Poland and Lisa from Germany. Both are happy with their time as au pairs in Norway. Beata has been in the country for six months, while Lisa arrived only four weeks ago. Both keep what they earn and have structured working conditions with weekends off. 

“I wanted to come to Norway as an au pair because I really want to learn Norwegian. I am a trained engineer specialising in transport and logistics, and would love to take further education within oil and gas,” says Beata, who first visited Norway as a student and already has many friends here. 

Lisa was tempted by the nature and snowboarding. She too is interested in languages and has already learnt five. Both live with families who have small children.

“The only thing I’d complain about would be the food. I don’t like fish, but there’s a lot of it in Norway,” says Lisa.

“Filipinos take risks”

We have also set up a meeting with a Filipina au pair who we’ll call ‘Nena’ because she does not want to be seen as being difficult when seeking other au pair jobs in the future, and she also has to consider her reputation back home. 

She comes in on a bus from somewhere outside of Oslo, where she is working for her third host family since arriving in Norway nine months ago. She appears fragile as she enters the centre in a turquoise jacket and long, black hair. 

“I am 24, but I’m really 16,” she jokes.

“That’s what everyone thinks I am.”

Like many other Filipinas she arrived in Norway because one of her cousins worked as an au pair here before. The agreement was negotiated through contacts. 

“I admit that before arriving in this country I had agreed to work as an au pair for two different families. But we Filipinos are a people who take risks. I took whatever opportunity I had to work abroad,” says Nena.

The deal was that she would clean for the other family on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the work with the host family was far more time consuming than she had anticipated. 

“The family had a three month old baby and a 20 months old toddler. By host mother needed help all the time and left me on my own with the baby. At the same time I was supposed to clean the house. She was very critical and wanted everything to be perfect. If I left the tiniest of spots on the window after cleaning it, I was forced to do it again.”

Deteriorating relations

The relationship between Nena and her host family deteriorated. She was not allowed to eat with them and the food they bought her was not enough. She decided to end the contract with the family, which carried a one month notice clause.

“The family did not want to pay me what I was owed, because they had paid my ticket to Norway. All I got was 700 kroner (€86) after working extra for them to prepare for a birthday party. I worked for 24 hours.

For Nena who had never been to a foreign country this was a difficult conflict. Not only did she live with her employer, but when she wasn’t paid she could not send money to her family in the Philippines either. Her own mother died when Nena was 17, soon after giving birth to her little brother. Her father disappeared for a long time. Nena also has a big brother, but he was left with the responsibility to keep the family together while she studied business economy for four years. The family was forced to live in a house they built on some relatives‘ land.

“They want me to buy my grandmother’s house. When I couldn’t send money, my relatives write bad things about me on Facebook,” she says and starts crying when thinking about her first months in Norway.

A brighter future

“Even though we fought, we became friends again. But I couldn’t stay living there.

She talks about her relationship with her third host mother:

“When I came to the bus stop there was a woman with very short hair who walked like a man.  She can be quite blunt, but deep inside I know she is soft,” she laughs.

The family lives in a house in the country. Nena has regulated working conditions and gets 4,000 kroner (€493) a month after tax. She keeps half and sends the rest to her family in the Philippines. 

That’s why the future looks brighter, but her story is one example of how exposed au pairs can be. 

“There should be two different visas. One for maids and one for au pairs. Many Norwegian families would find life harder if we stopped all au pairs from the Philippines, but if you’re actually looking for a maid you should pay for it,” says Magnhild Otnes.

Au pair rules

Norway has different rules for au pairs depending on whether they come from the Nordic region, EEA or a third country.

Nordic au pairs don’t need a visa

Au pairs from an EEA country need to register, but don’t need to apply for a permit to stay.

Au pairs from third countries must apply for a permit to stay. This can be granted for two years.

  • An au pair must be 18 but younger than 30.
  • As a rule, people with their own children can not become au pairs in Norway.
  • The host family must be able to speak Norwegian with the au pair.
  • Couples with children or single parents with children can have an au pair, but never more than one at a time.
  • The host family must treat the au pair as a part of the family.

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