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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.

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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.

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For the first time in 2013, one of the coldest years Ireland has had, Robert McCarthy (wasted skin, lively blue eyes) slept like a dog. The rain hadn’t been fighting the roof and, finally, the sun and warmth were going to give a break to the farmers. Last year, spring in Ireland that was nothing more than a word.

“Lovely day”, were the first words of Robert at 7.00 while he was waiting for his tea and homemade brown bread next to the kitchen's window. He was pleased. He would leave the cows in the fields that 5th of April of 2013.

The weather put Irish farmers into extremely difficult economic situations they claim they have never witnessed before. The rain and cold damaged the meadow which has plenty of holes and covered by short and frozen grass that hardly sate cattle. As a consequence, the farmers have to keep and feed the animals indoors, which triples the fodder they need and therefore the money they spend.

"Some days I can't sleep. It is a lot of pressure… If you lose a job, that's it. You lost it. But what do you do with the cows? You can't forget about them. You have to feed them every day", explains Robert. 

He is 38 and he lives alone with his mother Sheila McCarthy (67 years old but fitter than a young lady), who helps him with the farm, keeps the house and cooks delicious traditional dinners and cakes. Robert took over the family business in 2001, situated in a hill near Castlemaine in County Kerry, the southwest of Ireland. 

As locals say, they are settled in the middle of nowhere. The milk he produces in this tranquil and remote place is sold in the country under the brand Dawn and it is also processed for many products such as Cadbury chocolate, cheese and butter.

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After a quick snack it is time for him to milk the 43 diary cows he has and for Sheila to give a hand feeding the 26 calves born in the last two months. There is an automatic milk system in the farm that makes possible to milk six bovines at the same time.

When Sheila finishes helping Robert on the farm she brings the dogs for a walk to the top of the hill. The strong wind lashes her 67 year old body, which stands imperturbable as an iron cross hammered into a rocky peak. “You feel you are in the top of the world”, she exclaims with a fulfilling smile while she contemplates the scenic view.

In the farm, the cows are crowded at the exitdoor. When Robert finishes cleaning the excrements of the milking parlour with a hose, he leads them to the fields with the help of his workingdog, and meets a neighbor who comes in his tractor to level a path for him. Farmers usually support each other: cooperation and jovial conversations help them through the difficult times.

At 10.00am Robert and Sheila have a proper breakfast, this time with boiled eggs, bread, jam and tea. The radio, always on, talks about a murder and reminds Robert of a funeral they have to assist to in the evening. “People will drink, dance, cry and laugh at the same time. Everyone will be sick tomorrow. He was an 85 years old man with a good life so, why not celebrate?”, Robert explains. As one of his friends says, “a good funeral is better than a bad wedding” in Ireland.

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He goes back to the fields with his tractor to spread fertilizer and Sheila spends the rest of the morning baking a chocolate cake and cooking lamb with mashed potatoes and broccoli. There was a time when she used to dream about being a cook or a nurse, but she fell in love with Jerry McCarthy (deceased) and got married when she was 19.

“If you were the son of a farmer you had no chance to be somebody important. Just the doctor's son got an opportunity to study. To be a nurse, you could get work experience in the hospital and just become one of them”, she says.

At 13.30 she has three hungry men at the table. Her brother Pat Spring and her cousin Francis Spring have come to visit. Francis asks Robert if he hasn't found a girlfriend yet and Robert deviates the conversation with haughty jokes. He admits he would like to fall in love and have a family but it is hard to find the right person when you're 38 and you're a farmer.

There is no weekend in this job, you have to wake up at 7.00 every day, so it’s not easy go out and meet somebody”, he claims. When Sheila starts her dinner, everybody has finished the dessert and they're waiting for her to pour the tea into their cups. They said compliments for the food but no one helped to serve it or bring their dishes back into the kitchen.

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When Robert collects the cows to milk them again the sun is caressing the horizon. Around the TV The table is full again with beetroot, ham, salmon, bread and butter, this time for supper.

Sheila waits for her favorite soap opera ‘Fair City’ to start. She talks about “spoilt American children” she has seen on TV beating their parents and criticizes the way Irish girls dress these days. “They have no respect for themselves”, she says, at the time she concedes that times had definitely changed.

The weather forecast is on TV and silence invades the room. Robert recalls that he used to make near 40,000 euros per year but he expects he won't have any incomes by the end of 2013. Even though, he recognizes his situation is not the worst, (he hasn't a family or a mortgage to pay) and he is surviving this harsh period with his savings.

Despite the hard period for rural economy, Robert wouldn’t change his life. “I visited my brother in New York for a week and I came back more tired than I was. You can’t relax. If I moved there, I would be found hanging out”, he says. A dressed-up weather woman points to County Kerry on the map and in a sweet voice forecasts clear skies. Robert slept in peace that night. Spring in Ireland wouldn't be just a word that time.

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