'I have to really re-assess the whole logic of having an au pair for my children'
A change in the law now states that an au pair is classed as an 'employee', resulting in families all over Ireland having to reconsider their childcare options
Siobhan Berry's live-in au pair is due to finish within weeks - previously Berry would have replaced her with another au pair, but now the mum of two is considering a traditional child-minder.
Why? The fall-out of the decision by the Workplace Relations Commission - the employment court - that au pairs must now be paid at least the statutory minimum wage (€9.15 an hour), means that for Berry it doesn't make financial sense to continue having a stranger live in her home, caring for her children.
Parents are entitled to discount the au pair's overall salary by about €54-a-week if they are providing bed and board to them but Berry believes "it's not enough".
The Stillorgan businesswoman has had happy working arrangements with all four of the au pairs who have looked after her two young children over the past three years.
However, she says, the discount simply doesn't make up for the vast intrusion into family life and the loss of privacy in the home necessitated by having a live-in au pair.
"The whole reason I have an au pair is the affordability. You give up a huge amount of privacy generally, including family mealtimes.
"My au pairs always have dinner with us; they deserve to have dinner with the family, and we want to include them, but it's a big intrusion into your family life and there's no way around it.
"The €54 discount is not worth the intrusion of having a full-time au pair in the house, so I have to really re-assess the whole logic of having an au pair for my children," she says.
Laura Haugh, spokeswoman for Mummypages.ie, Ireland's biggest online parenting website, agrees: "That's not enough - the discount would not be equivalent to the cost of having someone live in your home. I think this will make people re-think having an au pair."
"An au pair is a participant in a cultural exchange programme, to learn English and experience another culture," adds Berry, an entrepreneur and founder of Mummycooks.ie.
"This changes everything. It's no longer a cultural exchange; it's a job.
"My au pair is due to finish within the next month and I will seriously consider a different option like a traditional child-minder, who lives out," she says.
Berry is not the only parent having second thoughts about the au pair system.
Foreign parents, displeased at having their daughters re-categorised as domestic workers, have said they now won't be sending them to Ireland - while some Irish parents, increasingly uneasy about where they stand, are even considering sending their au pair home, warns Carina Duke, managing director of Kangaroo Au Pair in Harold's Cross.
"Since the judgement was announced we have had two cases of foreign parents stating they wouldn't send their daughter to Ireland as au pairs," she told the Irish Independent.
"Au pairs have been put on a par with domestic workers and many parents in Spain or France who would have sent their daughters here will now not be happy to do so.
"In Europe, an au pair is participating in a cultural exchange - not in an employment contract.
"This means that Ireland is the only country which views the au pair as an 'employee', which they are not," she says, adding that the change in category has major implications for how the young women are treated.
"For example, we had a situation where an au pair had meningitis and was hospitalised."
Because the host mother was pregnant, she explains, the host father stayed with the au pair in the hospital.
When the au pair's mother arrived, she stayed in the host family's home while her daughter was ill. "Now this arrangement would be an employment situation so there is now no obligation on the employer to take care of the au pair.
"From our perspective what it means is that the cultural exchange programme is now not on offer for girls who would have liked to come here via this programme."
From the perspective of Irish host families, she added there is a sense of confusion: "They're not sure where they stand and we have been taking calls this morning from a family who said they felt that they might have to ask their au pair to go home because they do not know what the expectations would be now that it is no longer an exchange programme but an employment contract."
All elements of the situation must now be clarified, says Laura: "This formalises the payment arrangements, but the Government needs to go further and clarify the entire situation in terms of working conditions and give guidelines even on the kind of room they sleep in - some au pairs are expected to live in below-standard accommodation.
"The Government should regulate exactly how many hours of work an au pair should do per day. A template contract of employment should be provided for the use of both sides while rules should be drawn up to govern the living conditions, meals and tasks that would constitute the pair's lifestyle and working conditions."
"Some au pairs are told they must not enter family rooms in the evening - they are confided to a bedroom and may not have internet access or even a TV.
"Is a family allowed to ask the au pair to engage in housekeeping duties as well, for instance?
"I believe mothers would be relieved if a government department put out guidelines to protect both the au pair and the couple in whose home the au pair is working," says Haugh.
The Netherlands is an example of how the au pair system should be run, believes Caroline Joyce, managing director of Cara International, which has been operating in Ireland for some 15 years.
"I would be very concerned about the lack of regulation in the au pair sector, but I also think the regulations they're putting in now have been implemented in a scare-mongering way, instead of in a structured way.
"In the Netherlands, host families are given tax credits through the au pair agencies. It's very black and white," she says.
Ms Joyce also warned that the minimum wage ruling has implications which reach further than the au pair sector: "This will have a knock-on effect on all childcare - from babysitters to grandparents to the girl next door," she revealed, adding that all of these would now have to have contracts of employment, payslips and tax certifications.
"Families are now in a very different situation - you have a lot of shift workers who have had no option but to employ an au pair in their home who now don't know if their au pair could sue them for back pay - people are very worried."
All you need to know about hiring an au pair
What's all the fuss about?
The Workplace Relations Commission this week ordered a couple to pay nearly €10,000 to their former au pair - because they failed to provide her with proper pay and conditions.
The au pair, it emerged, was expected to work up to 60 hours a week for just €100.
She had no advance notice of how long she would have to work on any given day and did not receive any contract setting out her terms and conditions.
She was reluctant to complain because of her attachment to the children she cared for, and only heard about the Migrant Rights Centre through word of mouth. She has since given up au pairing.
What does all of this mean for me?
If you have an au pair, you are now classed an an employer. You must pay your au pair at least the statutory minimum wage, currently €9.15 an hour. Your au pair must not work more than 48 hours a week, or an average of 48 hours a week over a four-month period.
She or he must receive breaks of at least 15 minutes after every four-and-a-half hours worked, or 30 minutes after every six hours.
She or he is also entitled to annual leave, and to have public holidays off work - or else receive compensation in lieu.
All of this should be included in a written statement of terms and conditions and followed up with written pay slips.
When did these rights for au pairs actually come in?
These rights were always there, but somehow did not affect au pairs. Last summer the jobs minister and the Workplace Rights Relations Commission clarified the position in the summer of 2015.
Are there any implications for their working condition?
Duties must be agreed in advance. Your au pair is entitled to work in a "safe and healthy working environment" so overloading them with too many chores is likely to see you in breach of that condition.
Why should I comply with employment legislation in terms of having an au pair?
If you breach these conditions and a case is taken against you, you will have to pay anyway - and you'll be brought to court.
How many au pairs do we have in Ireland - and why do they come here?
An estimated 20,000 households in this country employ au pairs, many of whom come to learn English. Some are looking to experience a different culture, while others use the system to combine work and study in a foreign country.