Middle-class Ireland is partaking in a form of modern slavery - employing young immigrant women for as little as €2 an hour to save on the spiralling cost of creche care, the Migrants Right Centre of Ireland (MRCI) has claimed.
A growing number of families, particularly in South Dublin, are taking their children out of creches in favour of using young foreign students to look after their children and to run their homes.
Girls from Brazil, eastern Europe, France, Spain and Italy are working up to 60 hours per week for as little as €2 an hour. In many cases they are expected to do all housework including ironing, hoovering, cleaning, cooking and school runs. In some cases, the live-in au pairs have reported that they have to share a bed with one of the children.
The MRCI said it has received numerous complaints concerning inappropriate comments and behaviour, including one case in which a father climbed into bed beside an au-pair during the night.
Co-ordinator Aoife Smith said that the problem is worsening and that it has now become "culturally acceptable" for Irish families to work young au pairs long hours for a fraction of the minimum wage.
She told the Sunday Independent: "We have serious concerns about the silence surrounding the au pair system in Ireland and the amount of work and kind of work that is being carried out for very cheap labour. The situation has definitely gotten worse," she says of the last two years.
"This is across the rural and urban divide. This is right across the country. More families are now opting for au pairs because we are one of the most expensive countries for childcare in the EU at an average of between €1,000 to €1,200 per month."
The MRCI estimates up to 10,000 au pairs are now working in private homes across the country, although the exact figure is impossible to quantify because the industry is not regulated.
"All women are not working 60 hours. But I think it is fair to say in extreme cases it is akin to slave labour," Ms Smith said.
"We have a case in the west of Ireland were the worker is looking after three small children from 7am in the morning to 10pm each night. On top of this she is expected to complete all the housekeeping, the various school runs, babysit the younger ones all day at home, cook family meals, do laundry, ironing and hoovering and she has to be available at the weekends if the family decide they want to do something without notice. And all that for €120 a week."
She added: "Their personal space and private space is very blurred. Some workers have to share a bed with the children they are minding. They are also on call 24 hours a day which means getting up to care for young babies during the night. We are also hearing reports of inappropriate comments and behaviour. A father in one family got into bed beside an au pair. Most of these girls are unaware they have rights and are too afraid to do anything about it because they have nowhere to go."
Irish parents currently need to earn €30,000 a year to fund the cost of childcare for two children.
Last week, up to 1,000 people working in the childcare sector protested outside Leinster House over the lack of government funding.
A spokesperson for Children's Minister James Reilly said he is setting up an inter-departmental group to examine how issues such as low pay in the sector can be addressed.
Ayiqueo* (from Brazil)
'The family I was with were nice to me - apart from the wages. I had to work 8 hours a day for five days a week for €120.
"I didn't live with them and on top of minding the children I had to do everything in the house. All the family's ironing, laundry, cleaning the bathrooms, hoovering.
"We don't have much of an option but to work for that. I am a student, I have to be able to go to school and I won't be able to live in Ireland and study if I don't have a job.
"I know friends who are treated like maids to wait on their family day and night, some are treated very badly, constantly putting them down and made feel as though they are not as good as them.
"Just because you can treat someone that way, or pay them a certain wage because you can, doesn't make it right. Irish families should look at their conscience more and ask if it is fair to treat another human being like that."
Maria* (from Brazil)
'The first days were great. My boss told me to consider myself part of the family and they would all treat me well.
"But it wasn't true. They wanted me to work 49 hours a week for €150 and I am a student. I had a long list of activities to do every day. Look after their child, vacuum, clean glass, dust the furniture, clean the kitchen and the bathroom, wash clothes, hang them on the line, fold them and iron. Mind the pets, help the child with their homework, music lessons, make dinner for everyone.
"I lived with them so on my holidays work would go up to 72 hours a week. I had no free time. I cried every day.
"I couldn't take it anymore so I searched the internet and came across the MRCI and they have helped me a lot.
"I feel like I was taken advantage of because I have very little English and I needed the money to get me through college. I have never been made feel like that by anyone. I felt like a slave. I didn't have my freedom."
*Not their real names