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The First Shift: Domestic Workers Deserve Basic Rights

Written by Brittany Shoot   

 – Article courtesy of the “”, first published on July 17, 2009.

In Demark, despite strict immigration laws, it isn’t uncommon to see large groups of young Filipina women congregating on train station platforms or giggling together in public. In Copenhagen, state-sanctioned domestic workers are often employed as au pairs – a community that is largely comprised of young Filipina women.

Domestic workers perform all sorts of household duties, ranging from childcare and caring for the elderly to cleaning, laundry, cooking, and yard work. Many are immigrants – some documented, some not – and even among the most well paid, highly valued legal workers, domestic employment and au pair agreements can be complicated situations.

Au Pair Orientation Course - September 6, 2008

In a precarious position, domestic employees are often forced to do exactly what they’re told – no matter what. They can be fired just for requesting a schedule change or unpaid time off, and in many countries, domestic workers rely on their employers for meals and housing. When a laborer is suddenly fired without cause or notice, they are left in a potentially dangerous situation. Another job – no matter how unsavory or unsafe – must be secured, or they could end up homeless. There is no guaranteed legal protection, and these workers are at the mercy of their employers.

Originally, the idea behind au pair programs in many European countries was to provide an authentic cultural experience for young people from other countries in exchange for help around the house. But what was once thought of as a year off for young people bouncing between education and other employment has become an exploitative system for many workers from the Philippines. Between 2002 and 2007, Danish resident permits granted to au pairs from the Philippines increased over 1000%, from only 124 in 2002 to 1510 in 2007. Some reports indicate that nearly 3,000 au pair resident permits were issued in 2008. Nearly 75% of au pairs currently working in Denmark are Filipino.

Conditions of an au pair work visa include an agreement from the host family that an au pair will live with them on “equal terms” and will be given the chance to “improve language and/or professional skills.” As the au pair is to adopt the role of a family member, he or she is entitled to their own room in the host’s home, a minimum allowance of 2,900DKK a month ($580 USD), no more than five hours of work each day, and one full day off each week.

But the integration system in Denmark makes it difficult for any newcomer – even highly educated Western immigrants – to find stable employment. While many immigrants arriving in Denmark take under-the-table work until legitimate employment becomes available, Filipino domestic workers are sought out, in part due to ethnic stereotypes about their willingness to be compliant and their comfort with English. However, because of visa restrictions limiting their stays in Denmark, many are not able to integrate into Danish life in only a year and a half. After eighteen months, they typically leave for positions elsewhere. With high concentrations of Filipino au pairs in other Nordic countries, many au pairs from Denmark relocate to Norway, where monthly wages are higher and au pair visas are less restrictive.

Some Filipino au pairs in Denmark – a group that increasingly also includes young men – have excellent experiences with their host families. Some prominent Danes, like Copenhagen’s kultur- og fritidsborgmester (Mayor of Culture and Recreation) Pia Allerslev has publicly stated that without au pair assistance, she would never be able to perform all of her public duties.

Yet despite this praise and the country’s clearly stipulated visa conditions, many au pairs are overworked and abused, forced to do household work that is not included in the official description of an “au pair.” Many are underpaid, forcing them to take additional “black” work, which can include undocumented babysitting and cleaning for reduced rates. Because au pairs can be deported if they are found taking on extra employment, some undocumented workers fear complaining about their host family’s treatment. Many have heard horror stories about employers that report their staff’s unsanctioned income to immigration authorities.

In response to charges of abuse abroad, the Philippine government issued a ban on au pair visas in 1998. While likely well-meaning, the ban has had strange, unintended effects, and it is largely ignored by European governments seeking to import cheap migrant labor. Some European governments circumvent the ban by accepting visas for Filipino workers issued in other countries like Singapore.

Filomenita Mongaya Høgsholm, the founder of Babaylan Denmark and co-founder of Babaylan Europe, believes that the Philippine ban only harms young workers trying to leave the Philippines. Workers leaving outlying Philippine provinces to work abroad are the most obvious rule-breakers and must often hire agencies to help them avoid detection. These agencies are known to exploit the workers, taking high fees for help with travel and placement. After an au pair reaches her new assignment, she may end up paying much of her monthly allowance as interest back to the agency, which arguably resembles a semi-legal form of human trafficking. While I attempted to reach au pairs directly for interview for this story, Mongaya Høgsholm explains, “Au pairs are not very forthcoming when it comes to media interviews.”

During the June election for European Parliament, several left-leaning Danish political parties – including the Social Democrats and the Socialist People’s Party – called for an end to the au pair agreement in Denmark. At the time, former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, a Social Democrat, said that the au pair program had simply become a way for affluent Danes to afford cheap labor.

Mongaya Høgsholm agrees. “I don’t think families are thinking of the cultural exchange,” she says, though she is quick to point out that some families give their domestic workers access to things like laptop computers and Skype to stay in touch with family and friends back home. Ideally, she says, au pairs would find ways to stay in Denmark by transitioning to educational pursuits or other employment.

For now, though, many are still treated as expendable labor. After their visas expire, they head home or simply move on.


Brittany ShootBrittany Shoot
About the Author
Brittany Shoot is an American writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. A longtime member of the Feminist Review blog editorial collective, her writing has also appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Bitch, make/shift, WireTap Magazine, and Religion Dispatches.Brittany earned concurrent Bachelor’s degrees in Women’s Studies, Communication, and Psychology, and has a Master’s degree in Visual and Media Arts. She likes to think of herself as a recovering academic but suspects that another degree in animal ethics might be in her future. A vegan and empathic animal advocate, she hopes to eventually operate her own farm sanctuary. When she isn’t taking photos with vintage film cameras and eating avocados, Brittany can be found moonlighting as a teacher, pet sitter, and farmhand. Visit her website at
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Posted in Au Pair, Babaylan DK, Documentation.

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5 Responses

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  1. avatar reese says

    It is true that the ” on-equal terms” has been neglected. I’m a Filipina aupair here in Denmark and it saddens me more to see that Filipina’s opted to have this mentality that aupair equates to domestic helpers. Nothing wrong with being a domestic helper if you are actually employed as such with salary that amounts to your job.
    Reasons for being an aupair also makes a huge difference, a Master Thesis in Aalborg University about Aupair from Philippines showed that “suppporting their families back home ranked first as the reason why Filipinas left the country and venture to Denmark without comprehending the contracts signed.
    Passivity and that “filipino mentality” that everything is fine has a negative effect as well.
    I share this to my fellow AUPAIRS, on equal terms means you have to voice out if things are not right, you have the same rights as anybody else in the family since you are considered and you signed a contract as such. You have to KNOW your rights and know that saying NO is not a crime.

  2. avatar Ana Lindenhann says

    Thanks for the visit and and a timely comment. A lot of our aupairs who comes here and doesn’t understand whar’s the meaning of au pair. They even marketed as they are willing to do everything but hey they aren’t hired as house help so its wrong.
    They equate aupair as a domestic helper thats why they still call their host as “amo” or boss even address them as Ma’am or Sir although there’s nothing wrong with that because maybe it is on our culture to give respect to elders or those with positions but in Denmark it is alright to call anyone with their first name like the Prime minister, doctors etc just call them their full name is a sign of formality.What I see wrong with it is that it makes you feel below them and you give them the impression to them that they can do whatever they want with their aupairs (of course not all of them).
    We are also brought up to be nice especially girls and we always wants to please so we haven’t practice to say NO and that takes a lot of work to do. So Reese would you come to our Orientation and help your fellow aupairs that it is not a crime to say NO in fact it will makes you
    westernized and well informed.
    Regards and have a nice weekend

  3. avatar yschi says

    well said. I aswell have been an aupair here in denmark. But i was not abused when i was working in my host family. They even helped me to study here in denmark. So not all of them were abusing the aupairs. But they are still some families does. So i just told them to change a host family. Better than to go home

  4. avatar owiend says

    we cannot really generalized the situation. but it is actually unfortunate when people (host families and au pairs, danes and filipinos alike) misuse the system. since it is not legal in the philippines to work as au pair, everyone become vulnerable to misuse.
    and here in europe, au pairs meant another in the beginning than it does now. with the rising number of filipinas (or asians) coming to europe as au pairs, and europeans hiring au pairs from the philippines, being au pair nowadays to simply put it, is being domestic helper as the title above. but of course, as many says, who cares? that is mostly the reason why one does apply to be an au pair.

  5. avatar analind says

    I still think that there are still a lot of host families that following the true meaning of aupairs because maybe because they were aupairs themselves or aupair system serves a good purpose. But if most of Filipinas coming here as aupair doesn’t know what is aupair is all about then they themselves are to blame.
    You are lucky to have a host that understands and cares for you. Share your blessings by just sharing your story will help educate or inform aupairs. You can contact us if you are interested sharing your story by written form or by sharing it in one of our orientations.
    Thank you for the visit and Good luck in your study. 🙂