Being an au pair in most of the European countries is being nothing and nobody. Not even a number. It is imposible to know how many young people are working under this denomination in the old continent, who they are, what they are doing or how they are being treated by the families they are living with.
Au pairs are sometimes in charge of 5 children lives. They drive them to school, teach them their first words, offer them support when they miss their parents or they have been bullied by classmates. Most of the times, they also cook and clean for the whole family. How much do they get paid? Around 100€ for more than 40 hours of work.
However, there is no information available about this industry and, worst of all, it hasn’t been given any legal framework in most European countries. As a result, this experience is something similar to going deep into the jungle: one doesn’t know what risks one is confronting and there is nobody and nowhere to turn to.
On a 15-person-survey developed for this article were found the following breaches: All of them worked between 6 and 11 hours per day and half of them claimed they were involved in hard housework. All of them obtained food, accomodation and pocket money, which varied between 70 and 130€ per week. Two au pairs couldn’t take language classes and just one of them had a written contract.
Although this situation can be hard for families (some of them report finding lazy, messy, unpolite or selfish au pairs) it is always the au pair the one who is in a most vulnerable position, as he or she depends directly from the family, doesn’t speak the language properly and doesn’t know the country. And this is a breeding ground for abuse.
Laura Zapata, Spain: “I went so far as to write S.O.S. in the window”
She left Spain for the first time in her life to mind a 6-year-old child but she found Irish chickens, hens and ducks waiting for her too. Laura Zapata, 27, has no problem in saying she has been abused as an au pair and she had to literally run away.
She paid 400€ to an agency she considers “a waste of money”, as she arrived in a worse situation than some people who came through free websites.
When she arrived to a the tiny village of Ballinspittle, in County Cork, she found she had to follow a strict routine she didn’t expect. She had to have the breakfast ready at 8.05 exactly. “If the porridge was too hard or too soft -in Spain there isn’t porridge- she would throw it in the bin and shout around the house ‘fuck, fuck’”, she explains.
Then, she had to feed the chickens, ducks and hens, clean the farm and feed a dog and a cat. After that, she cleaned the first floor of the house for one hour and a half approximately (brushing and mopping the floor, washing the dishes by hand, putting the washing machine on, cleaning the fireplace and getting it ready for the evening).
When the house was ready, she was supposed to take the dog for a walk and during the evening, she had to cook dinner between other tasks. All that for 90€ per week.
She could only wash her own clothes at the weekend and she was not allowed around the house in her free time. “I went to the sitting room once and the mother told me I had to respect her space”, she claims. Once, the dog peed in Laura’s bed and she told the mum. “She denied it and I was afraid to wash the sheets so I slept with the pee in my bed for two weeks”, she says.
“I used to cry a lot. I went so far as to write S.O.S. in the steam of the window”, Laura remembers. Laura went to lessons and she found au pairs who told her that was an abuse and introduced her to a mother who was looking for an au pair.
The agency had found a new family for her but she would have to wait for a month, and she couldn’t stand that situation anymore. “I was so afraid. I ran away in the morning, while the mum was out of the house, and I left a note on the table and the keys in the letter box”.
The lack of regulation
Only Denmark and Sweden have established a legal framework for au pairs. The only legal text that exists in Europe is the Agreement on Au Pair Placement, written out by the Council of Europe in 1969.
This text is obsolete for today’s needs and has been only ratified by six countries, where it makes no difference as there isn’t any mechanism to supervise and control the industry efficiently. In practice, nearly every one of its statements are disobeyed.
A study conducted in 2011 by Helle Stenum for the European Parliament (EP) called ‘Abused domestic workers in Europe: The case of au pairs’ (PDF), recognizes the Agreement “cannot be characterized as a strong mechanism for the international regulation of au pairs”. The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland recently published a study called ‘Part of the family?‘ that concludes 36% of the au pairs have being exploited while working in Ireland.