News Opinion

Saturday 22 October 2016

Katie Byrne: Au revoir - Have we overlooked the cultural exchange aspect of hosting an au pair?

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

It looks like we could be waving au revoir to the au pair tradition - or at least saying bonjour to a new way of doing things.

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The Au Pair Placement Bill, which sought to define the role of the au pair, was recently defeated in the Dáil.

The bill, proposed by Deputy Anne Rabbitte, was brought forward following a recent landmark ruling in which an Irish family were ordered to pay a Spanish au pair €9,229 after they were found to have breached employment laws. The au pair was paid €100 a week, plus board, for between 30 and 60 hours of work.

At the time, Caroline Joyce of Cara International, an au pair placement agency, said the ruling had "opened the floodgates" for further claims. She was right: 50 similar cases are pending.

Meanwhile, all sorts of horror stories began to emerge. One au pair was asked to wash the family car; another was asked to share a child's bedroom. This is exploitation, plain and simple. However, it's a shame that only the most contemptible cases have been given air time.

Believe it or not, many of the au pairs who come to Ireland have a happy, enriching experience. Even so, the families that they have been paired with now feel implicated by the actions of others.

Let's be clear: the term 'au pair' means 'on a par' and I know many families who go to the ends of the earth to cultivate this dynamic.

Clearly they have partaken in this cultural exchange programme because they can't afford professional childcare. Yet they are also acutely aware that it is a quid pro quo arrangement in which 'exchange' is the operative word.

In exchange for cheap childcare, the au pair gets bed and board under the aegis of a family that can help her negotiate the local bus route and understand the differences between 'there', 'their' and 'they're'.

She also gets to adapt to life in a new country without having to save for an apartment deposit, calculate bin charges or find an employer who will let her take at least 15 hours off each week to attend English classes. It's an intercultural language programme with stabilisers. Or at least it should be.

While some families see their au pair as little more than 'a girl' - or worse, 'a Brazilian' - many more families consider their au pair to be a member of the family. She eats dinner with them (but doesn't cook it). She goes to the cinema with them (but doesn't buy her own ticket).

These families have entrusted these young women to look after their children. By the same token, they realise that they are looking after someone else's daughter. In an ideal au pair scenario, both parties are in loco parentis.

They take her to the doctor - and pay for her prescription - if she gets sick. They wipe her tears when she gets homesick. Like any parent, they worry about bad company, dodgy men and drugs.

I've seen au pairs flourish - both international au pairs who have come to Ireland and Irish au pairs who have travelled abroad - when they have been hosted by morally upstanding families.

They become independent, they build resilience and they grow in confidence. Meanwhile, the children they look after learn how to integrate with other cultures and establish emotional intimacy with an adult outside the family unit.

This recent ruling by the Workplace Relations Commission treated the Spanish au pair as a legal employee. This is fair given that her hosts were behaving more like unscrupulous employers.

But is it fair to consider the 20,000 au pairs living in Ireland as employees when many of them are placed with hosts who collect them from the bus stop, listen to their boyfriend problems and console them when they miss home?

Of course, all workers, casual and otherwise, need rights, but let's not forget that the hosts are providing a service too. And let's not underestimate just how much that service would cost on the open market.

I know of language schools in Dublin that are paying hosts up to €850 a month to provide bed and board to international students. Comparably, the National Minimum Wage Act factors in an allowance of just €54.13 per week to cover bed and board for an au pair. I'm not sure what county, country or indeed planet a person can pay for their rent, utilities and food with just €216.52 a month.

On the plus side, Pat Breen TD, is of a similar opinion. In his speech rejecting the bill, he vowed to ask the Low Pay Commission to review the allowances for lodgings provided for under the National Minimum Wage Act.

This is progress, but we ought to remember that while some people are blatantly exploiting the system, others have wholeheartedly honoured the exchange aspect of it.

Yes, the industry needs regulation, transparency and some form of ombudsman. However, we should define the role of both the au pair and the host/s before we enforce minimum wage laws.

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