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Children are precious, so why aren't the people caring for them valued?

‘An au pair’s work is essential, and caring for children is an enormous responsibility, yet we are not seen as real workers.’

AU PAIRS ARE the invisible arm of the Irish workforce. There are thousands of us working for Irish families. Technically under Irish law all workers are protected by employment legislation, but in practice this has little impact – few au pairs earn anything near minimum wage, and annual leave and public holiday pay are unheard of.

Au pairs are expected to provide flexible full-time childcare and domestic work for a fraction of the minimum wage. It is seen as acceptable for us to work 40-hour weeks for just €100. Our work is essential, and caring for children is an enormous responsibility, but we are not seen as real workers.

Increasing demand for affordable childcare options has led to the au pair being used as a very cheap – and basically exploitative – form of childcare. How we are treated depends by and large on the goodwill of the family employing us, and the truth is, many families do not treat au pairs well at all. I was fortunate, as the family I worked for treated me with respect, but for many others this has not been the case.

Abuse is rampant 

Au pairs regularly work excessive hours, being responsible for daily childcare and housework and babysitting on evenings and weekends, while being paid an average of just €100-€120 per week. A Cultúr survey found that most au pairs earned less than €3 per hour, regardless of the number of children that they were minding.

Abuse is rampant. I have come across numerous cases of au pairs working well over 40 hours per week. For instance, a girl in Roscommon had to look after three children, clean the house, and do all the laundry and cooking for the family. She worked from 7am to 9.30pm, Monday to Friday, and was paid just €150 per week. When she tried to leave, the mother used emotional blackmail to keep her, saying the children were too attached to her so they would get sick if she left.

Another girl, who paid an au pair agency to find her a job, was asked to perform tasks that were far beyond the terms of her contract. She regularly worked seven days a week. She tried to talk to the family who refused to change her conditions. The au pair agency never replied to her calls.

Families regularly require au pairs to add them on social media so they can monitor even their social lives. Some of them install cameras around the house to watch the au pair at all times, invading her privacy even when she is in her own room.

Then there was a host father who came back from the pub and tried to get into one au pair’s bed – the bed she already shared with his child.

Fair wages would result in higher-quality services

Most girls are afraid to leave even the worst job as they fear having nowhere to go and not having enough to live on, with the possibility of falling through the cracks and facing deprivation and homelessness.

Although most families do not provide a good experience for au pairs, there are a few, very few, families who do support these girls to have a positive cultural exchange, treating them as part of the family. More commonly, families speak openly about having an au pair as “just an extra pair of hands”, when in fact the au pair doing everything in the house. The au pair’s objective is to practise her English, but some girls are not even allowed to spend time with the family.

If children are the most valuable thing in their parents’ lives, why not value the people caring for them? Fair wages would result in higher-quality services.

There is no special legal framework for au pair programmes

Most people are unaware that ‘au pair’ is an informal term; there is no special legal framework for au pair programmes in Ireland. Despite this, households all over Ireland use au pairs and numerous agencies and websites advertise au pair services. Last July, the Government ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on Domestic Work. It was a huge achievement for domestic workers in Ireland. The Au pair Rights Association Ireland is hopeful that the Government will now ensure that au pairs are widely recognised as workers, in order to protect their rights and put an end to an environment that has allowed exploitation of young women to thrive.

The National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) has the power to inspect the employment conditions of anyone working in a private home. NERA must work closely with families employing au pairs to protect and uphold our rights and protections under the law, in addition to tackling au pair agencies who are in breach of employment laws.

The widespread exploitation of au pairs in Ireland must end now.

Jane Xavier is a member of the Au pair Rights Association Ireland (ARAI), a group of au pairs working closely with the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland to fight against exploitation.

Expensive childcare is leading to an increase in underpaid au pairs in Ireland

Au pairs ‘used as cheap childcare’ and can be underpaid, exploited

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