Why are parents entrusting their child’s wellbeing to someone they are paying buttons to?

The issue of au pairs is a direct result of ridiculous childcare costs, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

“WHEN I ARRIVED at the Migrant Rights Centre I was exhausted, depressed, and weak,” said the Spanish au pair at the centre of last week’s landmark ruling by the Workplace Relations Commission.

She had been required to work for between 30 and 60 hours per week for €100.

She had been given no contract and received no advance notice of the length of her working day.

Unaware that she had any rights as a worker, she had only heard of the Migrants Rights Centre from friends and – due to the strong emotional connection she had made with the children in her care – she was very reluctant to make a complaint at all.

The Workplace Relations Commission found that she was an employee and – as such – was entitled to statutory minimum wage, rest periods, annual leave and public holidays off or compensation for working them.

The Commission ordered that she be paid almost €10,000 by the couple who had been her employers for five months. The Migrant Rights Centre says there are forty similar cases pending, one of which involves a claim for €35,000.

Au pairs classed as employees

The fact that au pairs have now been established in law as employees – with all of the rights commensurate to that definition – is very bad news indeed for the 20,000 Irish households that depend on au pairs as a source of cheap childcare.

Put simply, the difference between paying €100 a week pocket money to an au pair and putting a child in a crèche is roughly €500 per month. Or paying an au pair the minimum wage suddenly increases her/his cost from €400 a month to (roughly) €400 per week or €1,600 per month.

The Irish Times opinion editor John McManus reacted to the Workplace Relations Commission ruling with a column, which was described on Twitter by the author (and former Irish Times journalist) Belinda McKeon as “John McManus… trolling us hard on au-pairs and their rights”.

McManus recounted at length his own experience with an au pair from northern Italy whose “extensive tattoos were a clue to what might best be termed her being a ‘free spirit’”, a young woman who was given to baking inedible cakes and who ruined both Mr McManus’ table-cloth and also the poor man’s table. What earned McKeon’s ire was the paragraph:

“How a situation has come about where so many Irish families are reliant on the exploitation of these mostly young women is a travesty but no surprise. It is a rational response of anyone who cannot access affordable, well-regulated childcare – pretty much everybody with children.”

Some of the reactions of Twitter were – predictably – hilarious, with the barrister Fergal Crehan tweeting:

Paying buttons 

Joking aside, I don’t have children myself, so please forgive what is, I suppose, my sentimentalising their care. It’s just that I personally cannot understand how any parent would entrust their child’s wellbeing to someone to whom they were paying buttons.

In a world where the news shows us regularly that we sometimes cannot even trust our own flesh and blood with our kids, why on earth would you place small children in the hands of an untrained and underpaid teenager for most of the day?

As someone who is childless and – pretty much – penniless, I’m struck that the au pair phenomenon is surely an almost entirely middle class problem. After all, I would imagine that there can’t be too many council houses or semi-d’s which could spare a bedroom for a live-in babysitter.

Regardless of your status or class, though, your au pair is an employee and if you don’t feel like paying her a fair wage and treating her with respect, there’s a good chance you’ll be making your way to the Workplace Relations Commission, where they’ll be happy to explain things to you in easily-understood and expensive terms.

So, that’s a problem. And, as usual in Ireland, the problem isn’t even the problem. 3,000 of the 3,200 primary schools in the country aren’t in the control of the Catholic Church because we’re still the Catholic penal colony envisaged by Eamon de Valera and his sinister controller, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. It’s because the State has no intention of taking control of those schools and the taxpayer has no intention of paying for them.

My Mam and your Mam stand in the rain in freezing supermarket car-parks flogging flowers and badges because we continue to outsource vital health services to the charity sector and because the State has no intention of taking control of those services and the taxpayer has no intention of paying for them.

Similarly, if all 20,000 of those families currently underpaying au pairs suddenly decide they want to put their kids into crèches, affordability of childcare won’t be the immediate problem when the Liveline goes into meltdown because there aren’t enough crèche places because the State has no intention…

Well, you get the point.

Ireland. The country that gave us the Kerryman joke “If I was going there, I wouldn’t start here.”

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here.  

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