'They've no interest in being an employee. They are not migrant workers' - Could this be the end of the au pair?
In March last year, the status of au pairs in Ireland was thrown into disarray after a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) ruled that they should be paid as domestic workers.
'I would say demand for au pairs is down about 50pc," says Sylvie Levasseur-Reilly of the European Au Pair Agency in Dublin.
"The industry has changed. We have less families coming through agencies and more families searching online, which is making them go on the black market.
"Because the industry is such a mess, it's extremely difficult to explain to girls coming here that, though in their country they are regarded as an au pair, in this country you are regarded as a domestic worker. So that has been a bit of a challenge."
Cormac Maher of AuPairIreland.ie also reports a steep decline. "Our business is down 33pc year on year - a lot more jobs posted now are for live-out au pairs."
The drop has followed a landmark workplace case. Officially, there is no regulation of the estimated 20,000 au pairs in this country. However in March last year, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) backed the case of a Spanish au pair who had been in receipt of €100 a week, a rate found to be in breach of employment law.
The woman, who was supported by the Migrants Rights Centre, was awarded €9,229 in back pay. She issued a statement hoping no more young girls would be exploited "as cheap labour". A further case was to follow, resulting in an award of €1,700.
The ruling effectively recognised au pairs for the first time as being employees, and thus turned families into their employers. It's a significant change, whose after-effects are still being played out.
A cultural exchange?
For agencies whose business it is to match au pairs with Irish families, and vet both sides, the WRC ruling completely failed to recognise the singular nature of the position of an au pair; whose role was traditionally one of cultural exchange. For many, it seems, a confusion has arisen between migrants' rights to decent pay and the au pair tradition.
The unregulated nature of the au pair industry is a core problem. Other countries accord particular rights to au pairs, keeping them outside normal workplace regulations.
In the UK, pocket money is part of the au pair contract, alongside free board and lodgings. Au pairs work 30 hours a week (to include babysitting), get one day off each week and get pocket money of £70 to £85 (€77 to €93). In Germany, au pairs are allowed to work a maximum of six hours daily, and have at least four evenings and one complete day free each week. Their monthly pay is set at €260, but host families also need to pay €50 a month towards language classes.
The Dutch system requires every au pair, even if they are sourced through a non-Dutch programme or online, to register with an agency which is itself government-regulated and has to abide by the direct provisions made for au pairs.
But in Ireland, there's no clear legislative environment.
Sean Kavanagh of the agency SK Dublin, which has been placing au pairs since 2001, says there is a nuance and flexibility to the au pair experience that's not being recognised.
"Girls travelling over from Germany, Denmark, Spain don't want to be domestic workers… The girls here are not here to make money, they've finished school, are not sure what they want to do in college, they want to still be living in a family setting."
The food and board issue
There are problems too with other employment terms, which agencies argue are making the cost of employing an au pair prohibitive. Under the National Minimum Wage Act 2000, employers that provide their employee with food and accommodation are allowed to deduct €54.13 from their wages to contribute to the cost.
It's a sum that cannot cover the true cost of housing and feeding an au pair, particularly for a family in a city, which is where many au pairs want to be.
For some, not a lot has changed. Mary (who did not wish to be identified) has two children and is taking her third au pair this year in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.
In the past she paid her au pairs €100 per week. Mindful of the WRC ruling, she now pays by the hour. Since her children attend school, she says this means the au pairs would then earn less than €100, but she tops that up with babysitting pay. When she explained the new arrangement to her au pair, her reaction was one of suspicion.
"They've no interest in being an employee. They are not migrant workers," Mary says. Her au pair from this year is returning for a second year to continue to improve her English.
For Mary, the current allowance for their food and lodgings isn't credible. "Where would you live with all your board, bills and food for €54.13?"
Many agencies and families had been hoping that the Low Pay Commission (LPC) would recommend increasing the au pair allowance for food and lodgings - possibly to as high as €160 a week - as part of a review of the current minimum wage. In fact, the reverse happened. The LPC in July recommended families who employ au pairs in their homes should be entitled to deduct only €21.85 per week from the minimum wage for accommodation, with a deduction for meals of 82 cent per hour worked. For an au pair working an average 30 hour week, this would mean a deduction of €46.45 in total.
The LPC report hasn't yet been accepted by the Government, but the Taoiseach broadly welcomed the report at the time, particularly the measures around upping the minimum wage.
The cost to families
Caroline Joyce of Cara International Agency in Castlebar, and also one of the founders of the Irish National Au Pair Association, made a presentation to the LPC before it brought its report before the Dáil. She expresses confusion at the recommendations: "I'm still trying to work it out. We still have an absolute childcare crisis, and there is a huge problem with people still taking people illegally."
Joyce claims that the imposition of a regular employer relationship on the au pair system has cost women their place in the workforce.
"Unions see it as an opportunity for registration, and to enforce the minimum wage. But ironically this has also forced union workers out of work because they can't afford childcare."
The black market is benefitting, in her view. "There are 10,000 au pairs coming into the black market in this country with no vetting and now more and more children are being put at risk."
Kavanagh says Ireland risks missing out on all the fringe benefits of this cultural exchange.
"You've got about 20,000 au pairs coming over per year, each au pair brings over six people to visit them, so that's 120,000 people coming to visit because of au pairs. It's good for au pairs, the country, the language schools. Yet the message from the Government is this: au pairs don't exist."
Sometimes it's hard to keep the kids busy
Lucile Corlay (21)
From Nantes, France Arrived in Ireland in June to au pair for a family in Leixlip, Co Kildare
After a year in London as an au pair, looking after a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old, Lucile decided she wanted a more family-based experience.
"I really enjoyed being an au pair, I wanted so much to travel and to improve my English," she says. "I needed to do something else other than just working for money, something more unusual.
"Now I look after three small kids, aged two, four and five."
Her hours change regularly, some days she works for nine or 10 hours, some days she does just four. She doesn't want to talk about her pay, but has an arrangement with the family similar to the one she had on London.
The arrangement, she says, "is okay".
She agrees there is a special relationship, between an au pair and a family, that should be recognised officially.
"The experience was good, though. Sometimes it was hard because I have the kids a lot. I am just 21 so I don't have much to go on, but I like spending my summer like this. I recommend so much to be an au pair for a year, it helps you mature and learn new things.
"Sometimes it's hard to keep the kids busy, the parents are working full-time. But I came to Ireland because I'd heard so much about the countryside, so I was really curious about the country and I want to discover more about it."
It is not a job. You're part of the family
Karèle Rio (23)
From France: An au pair in Dublin from September 2015 to June 2016
Arriving in Ireland on her first experience living away from her parents, Karèle Rio was an au pair to two boys aged five and six, something she describes as "the best experience of my life".
"It helped me to grow up, to understand people," she says.
Rio's main objective was to learn English. She decided to attend English classes, and also to meet other au pairs and students. As an au pair in a single family household, she agreed a timetable with the family before she arrived in Ireland. He role was getting the kids to school, looking after them from 1.30pm to about 4.30pm, with babysitting one night a week.
"Compared to some other au pairs, it was a cool timetable. I just had to to take care of the children's clothes, sometimes a bit of ironing, but I would contribute, unloading the dishwasher, cleaning the kitchen, because you are part of the family.
"For me, it was not a job," continues Rio, "it was an experience. First of all it was a safe experience, and I spent a lot of time with the family; you are part of the family, a big sister in the family.
"It wasn't work. I don't think it's fair to make it into a regular job, you don't do the same hours as you do in a full-time job, you travel with the family, you are part of the family."
An au pair is not a full-time childcare option
Mum-of-four in south Dublin: Has been taking au pairs for four years
'I always say to people, an au pair is not a full-time childcare option, particularly if you have preschool children," says Dearbhalla Baviera.
Based in south Dublin, Baviera has four children - aged 10, eight and twins, who are almost five. They have had au pairs from when their kids were small, always sourcing them through agencies.
Baviera, who runs her own executive coaching and leadership consulting business, was an au pair several times herself and fully supports the special relationship an au pair brings. "It was always set up as a mother's helper, an extra pair of hands, as opposed to full time," she says.
Each au pair has had slightly different arrangements. Prior to last year's ruling, the typical set-up had been that they agree their base hours, about 30 hours a week, plus two nights babysitting. Now they do fewer hours, and two nights babysitting.
"Every September we reassess, depending on where the kids are at and the new au pair. But there are two things that are critical for me for the au pair arrangement to work: It's about respect, from our side, and theirs... and flexibility on both sides."
This aspect has fundamentally changed with the new ruling. "If you want to be really strict and count the hours, then I'm not going to give you that flexibility either. It is really a two-way thing. If you are shifting to an employer-employee relationship, you lose some of the dynamic, for sure.
"When you have a new au pair, I invest as much time in helping them to settle in, I'll bring them to English schools, I'll connect them to friends with au pairs, tell them all about the Facebook groups for au pairs - that will take probably about two or three weeks' investment in time on my side.
"I would be really in favour of regulation, I've always gone through an agency, it is a more expensive option; in terms of protecting the girls, I think that would be a good way to go. I don't really have a problem in managing the hours, in terms of the finances of it, but the €54 allowance is kind of ridiculous - it needs to be more reflective of the real cost."