There are 10,000 au pairs coming into the black market in this country with no vetting and now more and more children are being put at risk
‘Iwould say demand for au pairs is down about 50pc,” says Sylvie Levasseur-Reilly of the European Au Pair Agency in Dublin. “The industry has changed. We have less families coming through agencies and more families searching online, which is making them go on the black market.
“Because the industry is such a mess, it’s extremely difficult to explain to girls coming here that, though in their country they are regarded as an au pair, in this country you are regarded as a domestic worker. So that has been a bit of a challenge.”
Cormac Maher of AuPairIreland.ie also reports a steep decline. “Our business is down 33pc year on year — a lot more jobs posted now are for live-out au pairs.”
The drop has followed a landmark workplace case. Officially, there is no regulation of the estimated 20,000 au pairs in this country. However in March last year, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) backed the case of a Spanish au pair who had been in receipt of €100 a week, a rate found to be in breach of employment law.
The woman, who was supported by the Migrants Rights Centre, was awarded €9,229 in back pay. She issued a statement hoping no more young girls would be exploited “as cheap labour”. A further case was to follow, resulting in an award of €1,700.
The ruling effectively recognised au pairs for the first time as being employees, and thus turned families into their employers. It’s a significant change, whose after-effects are still being played out.
For agencies whose business it is to match au pairs with Irish families, and vet both sides, the WRC ruling completely failed to recognise the singular nature of the position of an au pair; whose role was traditionally one of cultural exchange. For many, it seems, a confusion has arisen between migrants’ rights to decent pay and the au pair tradition.
The unregulated nature of the au pair industry is a core problem. Other countries accord particular rights to au pairs, keeping them outside normal workplace regulations.
In the UK, pocket money is part of the au pair contract, alongside free board and lodgings. Au pairs work 30 hours a week (to include babysitting), get one day off each week and get pocket money of £70 to £85 (€77 to €93). In Germany, au pairs are allowed to work a maximum of six hours daily, and have at least four evenings and one complete day free each week. Their monthly pay is set at €260, but host families also need to pay €50 a month towards language classes.
The Dutch system requires every au pair, even if they are sourced through a non-Dutch programme or online, to register with an agency which is itself government-regulated and has to abide by the direct provisions made for au pairs.
But in Ireland, there’s no clear legislative environment.
Sean Kavanagh of the agency SK Dublin, which has been placing au pairs since 2001, says there is a nuance and flexibility to the au pair experience that’s not being recognised.
“Girls travelling over from Germany, Denmark, Spain don’t want to be domestic workers… The girls here are not here to make money, they’ve finished school, are not sure what they want to do in college, they want to still be living in a family setting.”
There are problems too with other employment terms, which agencies argue are making the cost of employing an au pair prohibitive. Under the National Minimum Wage Act 2000, employers that provide their employee with food and accommodation are allowed to deduct €54.13 from their wages to contribute to the cost.
It’s a sum that cannot cover the true cost of housing and feeding an au pair, particularly for a family in a city, which is where many au pairs want to be.
For some, not a lot has changed. Mary (who did not wish to be identified) has two children and is taking her third au pair this year in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.
In the past she paid her au pairs €100 per week. Mindful of the WRC ruling, she now pays by the hour. Since her children attend school, she says this means the au pairs would then earn less than €100, but she tops that up with babysitting pay. When she explained the new arrangement to her au pair, her reaction was one of suspicion.
“They’ve no interest in being an employee. They are not migrant workers,” Mary says. Her au pair from this year is returning for a second year to continue to improve her English.
For Mary, the current allowance for their food and lodgings isn’t credible. “Where would you live with all your board, bills and food for €54.13?”
Many agencies and families had been hoping that the Low Pay Commission (LPC) would recommend increasing the au pair allowance for food and lodgings — possibly to as high as