Underpaid, overworked, afraid ... and minding your children
When I was growing up we had a lovely, and very good-looking, Italian au pair who lived with us for a year. She spent most of her time studying English or going out with Irish men, who queued up to date her. She didn't cook, clean and only occasionally looked after us. Sometimes if my mother needed to pop out, the au pair would keep an eye on us for an hour and she did a bit of babysitting when my parents went out on Saturday nights but that was it.
Nowadays, some au pairs are allegedly being treated like slaves with some reported to be working 70-hour weeks for the grand sum of €100 a week.
These young girls (98pc of the au pairs in Ireland are female) come to Ireland to learn English and experience living in Ireland. They do not come to raise our children for €1.40 an hour when the minimum wage is €9.15 per hour.
Why are some Irish families suddenly exploiting young woman they have welcomed into their homes?
The cost of childcare is one of the main underlying issues. The childcare crisis, however, does not mean that families get to abuse innocent au pairs by over-working and under-paying them.
An Irish family who mistreated their Spanish au pair has just been ordered to pay her €9,229.
The move has been described as a landmark decision by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), which supported the au pair in her appeal to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
The au pair had been paid €100 a week by the family, the MRCI said. The family was found to have breached aspects of the National Minimum Wage Act, the Organisation of Working Time Act, and the Terms of Employment (Information) Act.
The au pair said in her statement: "When I arrived at the Migrant Rights Centre I was exhausted, depressed and weak."
Research by the MRCI suggests that au pairs working in up to 20,000 Irish homes are being subjected to abuses of labour law.
Why would anyone leave their young children with a girl who clearly has no idea how to look after them? Frankly, it's dangerous. A friend recently saw two young children aged about five and six running across a busy street while the au pair chatted on the phone, completely oblivious to what was going on.
Some au pairs are mature and perfectly capable of looking after children. If that's the case and they are willing to take on the extra hours, then they should be paid for their work and not used as a cheap option.
Unfortunately, many families looking for low-cost solutions to childcare are doing just that - exploiting these young women.
"We have seen a huge growth in the number of women au pairing in Ireland over the last five years," said MRCI spokesperson Aoife Smith. "Our centre is providing support and information to over 1,000 au pairs today compared to just 40 in 2013."
What au pairs need to know is that they are in fact covered by employment law just like any other workers, which includes minimum wage legislation, overtime and time off.
"The Government needs to get real about this and urgently address the issue of au pair agencies advertising exploitative positions. We're seeing this kind of exploitation up and down the country, and families believe it's legal because agencies tell them it is," Ms Smith says.
Families hiring au pairs also need to be aware that they have responsibilities as employers to their employees and that exploitation will not be stood for and is illegal.
In its recent survey of au pairs living and working in Ireland, MRCI found that 48pc were Brazilian and 28pc Spanish. Almost 80pc had no written contract whatsoever.
Over 37pc were expected to work more than was originally agreed, with over a quarter of respondents saying they worked 40-60 hours a week, with a further 8pc working more than 60 hours a week.
MRCI director Edel McGinley said anyone who employs a person to work in their home must register with Revenue as a single employer and must uphold employment law.
"If you have someone in your home, you're paying them, they're doing work, you are their employer."
The current arrangement gives employers risk-free access to cheap labour outside of an employment relationship, but systematically fails au pairs.
"By the very nature of the job, domestic workers are isolated, and often unaware of their rights as workers. In addition, the vast majority are women, and many are undocumented; they are afraid to leave and afraid to go to the authorities," said Pablo Rojas Coppari from the MRCI.
The MRCI is calling on the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to issue a clear statement on the rights and entitlements of au pairs in Irish homes and increase inspections in private homes with specific focus on au pairs.
Surely every parent wants to know that their children are safe. If you are leaving them with an exhausted, overworked, underpaid au pair, you may be putting them at risk.
Treat your au pair as you would want your own daughter to be treated if she went to live with a Spanish or Brazilian family - well and fairly.