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In its earliest days, the au pair system was a way for young Europeans (mostly women) to travel to other countries in Europe with a safe home base and pocket money, in exchange for performing light tasks such as childcare for a host family.  According to the European Committee for Au Pair Standards (ECAP), au pairing is the oldest known cultural exchange program in the world.  An au pair is not a maid.  The name itself means at par, på lige vilkår (in Danish), on equal terms, or on equal footing with others in the family.  An au pair is not a servant.

The first au pairs in Europe were typically young English women who travelled to France to study the language and teach English to children under their care. Many decades ago, the typical au pairs in Denmark were young Swedish women from the rural south who wanted to travel and explore another country.  More than 40 years after the European Agreement on Au Pair Placement was drafted in 1969, the character of the au pair has changed.  The typical au pair in Denmark is now a young (non-white, non-Western) Filipina (81% of all au pairs as of 2010).  In small numbers come young people from countries like Ukraine, Russia, Thailand, China, Brazil, Sri Lanka and the USA.   There is a great difference between the number one and two suppliers (2,140 from the Philippines and 87 from Ukraine in 2010).  In recent years, there have hardly been any Scandinavians or even Western Europeans, and the overwhelming majority is not Caucasian.

In 1998, the Philippines issued a ban on deployment of au pairs stemming from cases of abuse of the system in some European countries.   The number of new au pair entries in Denmark declined from 74 to 88 persons (1997-1998) to 38 to 39 (1999-2000) .

In 2010, the ban was lifted for Switzerland, Norway and Denmark.  In February 2012, the ban was lifted for all au pairs bound for Europe.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) acts as the lead agency in formulating policies on the au pair scheme.  A Technical Working Group (TWG) was set up in the Philippines composed of the DFA, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), the Department of Education (DepEd), the Bureau of Immigration (BI), the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), and the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO).  They developed new guidelines to facilitate the departure of au pairs, and to provide them safety nets and protection.

A strict monitoring system has been put in place in Philippine foreign posts in Europe for the protection of Filipino au pairs.  Departing au pairs need to are registered through the CFO, rather than the POEA.   Au pairs need not go through the DOLE or POEA procedures anymore, as they are not considered overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). (Note that in Denmark, the statistics on au pair arrivals are shown in the same category as foreign students, and not in the category of foreign workers/expatriates.)

Cultural exchange vs. cheap labor

Debates about the status and conditions of au pairs in Denmark stem from the different factors that motivate au pairs and host families to engage in the system.

In the ideal setting, the au pair does not see herself as an employee but rather a member of the family.  Neither she nor her host family will ever describe her status as a housekeeper, maid, or domestic worker.  The host family is interested to know more about the au pair’s home country.  The money (allowance) received by the au pair is used mainly for personal development (e.g., improving language and professional skills), and experiencing the culture in Denmark and Europe.

If the host family sees the au pair as a low-paid unskilled worker, living in its home as a servant who is not covered by the majority of existing labor laws, then there is ample room for worker exploitation.  At the same time, if the au pair sees herself as a deployed overseas contract worker with few employment options, who needs the money earned from abroad to support a family back home, then she places herself in a vulnerable position.

Starting from these two points of view, the way forward can therefore either be:

  • to improve systems and change perceptions, so that the system returns to its original intent of   being a cultural exchange program and learning opportunity for young people; not a career in itself, but rather a stepping stone, or…
  • to recognize au pairing as domestic work, where au pairs are considered as foreign workers employed as domestic helpers / professional caregivers, who should be paid wages according to national standards, and protected fully by labour laws.

The first approach appears to be stance of the Philippine government, which defines the au pair scheme as  ‘an immersion program in cultural and language learning’  as stated in the February 2012 Revised Guidelines for Au Pairs Bound for Norway and Denmark, published by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

The second approach seems closer to the Danish public’s view of the situation, of whom seven out of ten see au pairs as workers rather than exchange students/learners, whose pay per hour is shockingly low compared to the minimum wage.  One solution being floated is to abolish the au pair scheme and establish a system for hiring domestic help whose wages are paid according to labour standards.  This being the way to ensure that their rights are protected.

We would like to put forward that, the issue may not be about au pairs being cheap labour, but that they are commonly seen as unskilled, uneducated labour with little hope of career advancement outside of domestic service.  On the contrary, majority of Filipina au pairs are educated at the university level, and have work experience, but are looking for opportunities to experience life overseas, largely in order to earn, but also to increase their options for a future career.  The solution therefore, is not economic, but developmental.  Their conditions cannot just be uplifted simply by increasing take-home pay, but by laying out a program for authentic cultural exchange, self-improvement, career development, and woman empowerment.   These are concepts that Babaylan DK has espoused over 15 years, and which sadly are lacking in current programs for au pairs.