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Not All is Fair for Au Pairs

Dulce’s Dilemma
Dulce, a 25-year old Filipina, was just beginning to enjoy the sweet life in Copenhagen, not exactly the most cosmopolitan city in northern Europe, but a cozy urban place nonetheless, popular with tourists. She was, for months, an au pair for a young family in the northern suburb of Espergaerde. When she was off work, Dulce would meet up with her friends, usually from her home province of Bohol, for karaoke nights or for church on Sundays. Her family back home in Tagbilaran was quite pleased that she could send money home out of her meager allowance.

Philippine folk dance

Philippine folk dance

Phil. folk dancing enables Au Pairs to participate in the cultural life of their host society.One Sunday evening last November, Dulce was being dropped off at her Danish host family home by her friends after coming from evening mass. As she got out of the car and was crossing the country road in the pitch darkness of winter, she was run over by a private car right before her helpless friends’ eyes. She died on the way to the hospital, and her friends and the car driver all had to receive shock therapy. Dulce’s death was doubly painful for her family back home because no one was willing to pay for the transport of her casket to Tagbilaran for a proper burial. Cremation was not an option for her parents. The Danish host family wasn’t able to take on the responsibility of sending her remains home, nor was there a provision in her contract about funeral arrangements. To help out, the Filipino community in Denmark began a collection. However, despite hectic attempts to raise the money to pay for bringing Dulce’s remains home, the collection still came up short. Apparently nobody in Denmark could be held responsible for mortuary details, even if the Danish government and state that had given Dulce her permit to stay in the country. It was only after the Philippine Ambassador HE Victoria Bataclan, got involved in the case and went into dialogue with the different instances in the Danish system, did a solution come about. The insurance company of the driver was finally pinpointed to bring her remains to Tagbilaran. The other aspects of the Dulce case are yet to be resolved. Banning Au PairsThe story of Dulce is an example of the No Man’s Land that Filipino au pairs risk landing into if they encounter problems during their stay in Denmark. When Filipinos go abroad to become au pairs, they are actually entering unchartered territory without their realizing it. They are welcomed in Denmark and other European countries where young families with small children and hectic careers make use of their labor. But the Philippine government doesn’t want them to leave the country as au pairs. After many documented instances of abuse and exploitation of Filipino au pairs abroad, the Philippine government’s response was to impose a ban on traveling as an au pair in the 90s on the recommendation of then Ambassador Rosario Manalo. This ban can be seen in two ways: as a means by the Philippine state to protect its citizens and as a knee-jerk reaction to the criticism of the way the Philippine government protects its citizens’ rights as workers in other countries. Evil tongues would go as far as to say that au pairs earn and remit too little money anyway so they might as well stay home.

This ban, however, isn’t honored or respected by official instances in Europe. The Danish state, for example, continues to release visas or permits-to-stay to Filipino au pairs, even as it refuses to go into bilateral agreements with the Philippine government. Some recruitment agencies circumvent the ban by arranging for Filipino au pairs to get their Danish visas in other countries, such as Singapore. The ones who suffer the most [from this ban] are the thousands of young Filipinos who travel to Europe and, when some problem arises, realize that they are on their own. This [lack of government support] is apparent even as they depart from Manila. At the airport, it is said that first-time travelers have to pay an “escort fee” (at least P20,000) to some officials, who use the travel ban as an excuse to extort and exploit the hapless au pairs who might have already paid hundreds of thousands of pesos to their equally rapacious recruiters. Linda (not her real name), an ex-au pair who is now happily married and is the mother of an infant, confided to me that she was so relieved to have finally paid off the P250,000 debt she incurred from a cousin of hers who “found” her an au pair family in Denmark. Had Linda just depended on her monthly allowance of 2,500 Danish kroner, it would have taken her ten months to pay this illegal and exorbitant fee. But because she dared to work illegally beyond her official hours, she was able to pay off her “debt” in six months. Linda no longer speaks to her cousin but she’ll never report her to the authorities. In the last few months, I also became aware of the case of Maria (not her real name) whose permit was revoked when she became terminally ill with leukemia. It was actually the Aliens Directorate, now ironically calling itself Aliens Service, which insisted that she leave her employ as soon as possible, when her health situation was found to be grave. Maria, who has gone back to the Philippines, hasn’t gotten over how dispensable she had become as soon as she was no longer considered an asset to the Danish family she was au pairing for. She was given her month’s pay, not a cent more, then it was farvel og tak, goodbye and thanks!

Courage against exploitation

Filipinos are often covered nowadays in Danish media, with stories often about the abuse or exploitation of an au pair. With their hourly pay of $1.25, which Danes themselves consider slave wages, and reports of au pairs having to work up to 100 hours per week when the prescribed maximum is 30 hours -these the media dish up to readers who gobble up! We have seen so-called host families threatening au pairs on TV for having bravely come out and confronted their hosts about unpaid extra working hours, such as cleaning the homes of their hosts’ friends and associates, which is against the law. We’ve also read in the daily papers about the wives of top business people, directors and CEOs in the so-called “whisky belt” north of Copenhagen (meaning the upper-crust Danes) who lend au pairs to each other so they have serving ladies during their big business dinners. Without the protection of the Philippine government, the Danish government can actually deport the au pairs who bravely go public about their abuse and exploitation, although now they are given one month to find another host family. Failing that, the police will escort them to Kastrup airport. The brave au pairs have to fight on many fronts. As they face the wrath of their host families, they also risk being marginalized by their own kind. The Filipinos in Denmark generally look at au pairs as those who “disturb” the tranquil picture of Filipinos who have nice jobs and stable marriages, and who don’t want to be in the public eye. After yet another story of an abused au pair hit the headlines, one established Filipina commented, “Now, we all risk being seen as imported unskilled labor,” (meaning au pairs, or worse, as mail order brides, the commodity from past decades)

New Possibilities

The realities of the Danish labor market provide an opportunity to change both the image of Filipinos in Denmark, and of the au pair system. Denmark’s labor market is screaming for more bodies in the workforce, so why not integrate into the market these intelligent, hard-working and, in many cases, very highly educated young men and women, who just need an investment in language and a few other qualifying courses to fit in? Filipino au pairs are now definitely part of the suburban landscape of Denmark. Some have successfully transitioned to regular jobs in the labour market. Others have set their sights on further education and some have been successful in getting jobs in their real professions, as nurses, accountants, and information technology, among others. When their visa expire, many Filipino au pairs move from Denmark to another country, such as Norway, where the au pair allowance is higher and the stay is up to two years. More and more are looking further – across the Atlantic to Canada where they can work as caregivers, and where the chance to gain citizenship is within reach after 3 years. More and more young families in Denmark need a helping hand with the household chores if they are to combine family life and career. Should the au pair system be abolished, perhaps it’s time to revise the old “young girl in the house” model (a kind of domestic help of a lighter variety but with a proper pay for the hours worked, not 6.50 Danish kroner/$1.25 an hour which Filipino au pairs are paid, when the market rate is 100 kroner or $20 an hour. This has to be changed, as it is a black mark on Denmark’s and Europe’s reputation, of being looked at as a country and a continent that profits from exploiting young men and women from developing countries. Au pairs are a hybrid in Europe. Neither workers nor students, they get remunerated because they usually help two-career European families take care of small children and with the house chores. The term “au pair” means “at the same level” or “on equal footing” with family members. They are required to work for up to 30 hours a week (a maximum of five hours a day); the rest of the time, they are expected to study Danish culture and language. In addition to free board and lodging (their own room is a basic requirement) plus perhaps the use of a laptop and extra amenities like phone cards and travel passes, they get 2,500 kroners ($500) a month, from which they pay 8 % labor market tax. Considering that a simple T-shirt costs $15 and lip gloss more than $20 (in the Danish welfare state, cosmetics are considered luxury goods; cars have a value-added tax of 200%), au pairs’ earnings are not something to write home about. Many are tempted to do “black” work, like cleaning and babysitting, which is illegal and can be cause for deportation.

*First published in Filipinas Magazine in April 2008. Filomenita Mongaya Høgsholm is the founding Chair of Babaylan Denmark and is an Executive Board member of Babaylan Europe. She is also Board member of KULU, Women and Development Denmark.

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