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Traveller, nanny or housekeeper? Study reveals need to regulate au pair market to prevent exploitation

Source: Getty Images

As a landmark report details widespread abuse of au pairs in Australia, current and former au pairs tell SBS German of the negative experiences they encountered in their work.

While popular discussion of au pairs in Australia centres around Peter Dutton’s ministerial interventions, a new report from the University of Technology Sydney and Macquarie University has detailed a need to regulate the au pair market to prevent the exploitation of individuals working as au pairs.

Australia currently has one of the least regulated au pair sectors in the world, according to the study, which is the first of its kind to extensively examine the living and working conditions of au pairs working here.

“There is no official definition, no regulation, and no legal rules or even guidelines,” says Dr Laurie Berg from the University of Technology Sydney's Faculty of Law, one of the report's authors.

The concept of au pairing has arisen informally in Australia as a version of a European tradition where young women spend a year-long cultural exchange with a host family in a different European country, learning a foreign language and earning pocket money while undertaking light childcare duties.

Berg says that the survey, in which 1,479 people took part, presents eye-opening findings and a much-needed national picture of au pairs' working conditions.

Lack of standards leave au pairs at risk of financial and emotional abuse

While the exact number of au pairs presently working in Australia is unclear, a 2013 government estimate put the number at around 10,000, a figure which is likely to have since risen, according to the study authors.

With many arrangements made between families and au pairs being informal, a high number of au pairs are at risk of exploitation, the study says. Only 40 per cent of survey participants said they had signed written agreements with their host family. 

The report found that a large proportion of survey participants worked hours much longer than expected in their duties as au pairs (source: supplied)
University of Technology Sydney

“Sixty per cent are doing more work than is reasonable under the classic understanding of au pairing,” says Berg. “There is a tendency to super-size the tasks without further remuneration.”

A substantial minority of survey participants reported having experienced serious problems while working as au pairs in Australia, while a third of participants reported exploitative working conditions. Around 60 per cent said they found themselves being responsible not only for childcare, but various household tasks.

“Our survey tells us that the majority of au pairs are working as full-time nannies or housekeepers, but are paid as babysitters,” Berg says.

“Families either see the au pair as a cheap worker or a part of their family, no in-between really,” Nina, a 22-year-old German woman tells SBS German of her experience. “My first family was really nice. However, I was only paid $130 a week for 35 hours of work.”

"The majority of au pairs are working as full-time nannies or housekeepers.”

The going rate for an au pair's pocket money, as recommended by various non-governmental agencies, is around $240 per week for up to 35 hours of work. The survey shows that a majority of au pairs (58  per cent) are paid less than the national minimum wage ($18.93). Survey participants worked an average of 34 hours per week in their first placement.

About a third of au pairs use private agencies to arrange their au pair placement in Australia. But, as the survey reports, using an agency makes little difference to the standards or conditions under which au pairs work.

“I would not go with an agency again,” Nina says, “you pay them a lot of extra money, but you don't get an idea of what's expected from you.”

This chart depicts the ways in which au pair survey participants found their working placements in Australia (source: supplied)
University of Technology Sydney

More individuals have told SBS German that working as an au pair in Australia left them not only at risk of financial abuse, but also emotional abuse, as they found themselves in vulnerable positions with no recourse to employment authorities.

Lina came from Malaysia to work as an au pair for various families in Victoria and Western Australia, and tells SBS German that she was often over-worked and verbally abused.

“It was a lot of work, including cleaning after the parents," she says. "I felt that eventually I was taken advantage of and the dad was verbally not nice. [He] called me names, and things like that.”

Lina, who is now back in Malaysia, was subsequently maligned by a host family on social media.

“I created a huge Facebook group called 'Au Pairs´ Rights in Australia'. Some host families didn't like how we shared experiences there.”

“I was crying every day during my first few weeks in Australia.”

Nina also felt exploited when she worked as an au pair for three months with a family in regional Australia.

“It was really hard work for not a lot of money," says Nina. "It was in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do, no friends, no internet, no phone connection. I felt really lonely."

“Thirty hours a week would end up being 40 or 45," says 30-year-old Riley, a US national who au worked as an au pair for four different families in Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. "There wasn’t much privacy... I was very vulnerable at that time, I had never been outside the US. I was crying every day during my first few weeks in Australia.”

Terminating placements is often difficult

While many au pairs recognise critical issues as they arise in their placements, it's often difficult for them to terminate their engagement prematurely.

“One-in-six au pairs felt forced to stay in a difficult placement because they lacked alternative accommodation,” says Macquarie University Sociology Professor Gabrielle Meagher, another author of the study.

On the other end of the spectrum, more than a third of au pairs who were asked to leave early were given one day's notice to pack their bags.

“One family fired me over a text message, while I was out one day," says Riley. "They called me to come back, pack my bags and then they ordered an Uber for me to leave. It was a really unfortunate situation.”

"All-in-all I think this was the worst experience that I've had in all my travels."

One-in-five participants of the survey also reported being explicitly excluded from family activities.

“I don't have that much to do, less than previously discussed,” says currently employed German au pair Emily in Sydney. “I would love to do more with the family, but they usually spend their weekends at home, or gardening in their backyard. I find that unfortunate.”

Minimal understanding among au pairs of Australian visa rules

Unlike some other countries, Australia does not have a specific au pair visa, and most au pairs are legally allowed to work on Working Holiday visas.

However, working as an au pair on a tourist visa can see an individual's visa cancelled, as was recently brought to the wider community's attention when it was revealed that then-immigration minister Peter Dutton intervened in specific au pairs' cases.

The study shows that most participants did not understand Australian visa rules and the potential consequences of their violation.

German au pair Sarah ended up being detained after she had entered Australia on a tourist visa, and spent a night in Villawood Detention Centre before being deported for her transgressions.

"After five hours in an interview room getting questioned, they said that an Australian could do whatever I was doing and get paid for it so I'm basically stealing an Australians job and therefore I am working illegally on a tourist visa," Sarah says. "All-in-all I think this was the worst experience that I've had in all my travels."

A need for clear standards and guidance from government

The study authors call for an implementation of clearer standards and guidance.

"The Government as well as other agencies and institutions such as the ATO and the Fair Work Ombudsman should provide clear and detailed guidance on standards to assist both families and au pairs," Berg says.

The largest proporton of au pairs tend to come to Australia from Western Europe (source supplied)
University of Technology Sydney

The study also recommends that a dedicated au pair visa scheme should not be adopted if the validity of the visa would be subject to agency sponsorship, host family sponsorship, or continued stay in an au pair placement.

"And ultimately, the Government must resource flexible and affordable childcare as well," says Berg.

What can au pairs do now?

There are also a few simple ways au pairs can avoid disappointment, according to those individuals SBS German has spoken to.

Célia, a 25-year-old French au pair, who experienced one successful and one unfortunate placement, recommends other au pairs meet potential host families directly, where possible.

“You also need to think about what you really want, and prepare the right questions," she says.

Riley feels strongly about educating au pairs on what they should look for when seeking a host family.

“Even observing the family for a couple of hours can help, see what the family dynamics are like," he says. "And also having some kind of contract. Emphasise on how many hours you will be working and the rate of pay you expect.”

Some names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals interviewed