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

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

‘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 AuPairIre­ 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

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