House with designated au pair room

2011-06-10 Busy and well-off middle class families get cheap domestic help from au pairs in order to have time both for family and careers. Supporters of the au pair scheme say this is an equality measure and a form of development aid. Its critics reply that it echoes neo-colonialism and social dumping.

In Denmark, real estate agents advertise houses for sale as having a dedicated “au pair room”. Leading politicians see the scheme, through which the gender equality between Danish couples is maintained with the help of underpaid Filipina au pairs, as positive. Copenhagen’s social democratic Mayor Ritt Bjerregaard claimed in a 2007 op-ed that the modern woman no longer has to face the dilemma between family and career: the municipality boasted that it subsidised au pairs and cleaners for its female managers, to achieve gender equality among its leadership.

“One aspect of this is that labour migration in general has increased during the last ten years, especially for women, and Filipino women are at the forefront of this trend. For Filipino women, the au pair scheme is one of several migration possibilities”, the Danish migration researcher Helle Stenum explains.

“But a prerequisite for this development, both in Europe and in the Scandinavian countries, is that we continuously move towards more individualistic solutions for people’s problems. At the same time, the middle class has experienced a massive wealth increase. Thus people can afford au pairs, and at the same time a difficult labour market increases the burden on families, as people are pressured to work more, achieve more and be accessible and adaptable at all times. Hiring an au pair has become private solution to this problem.”

In 1999, 21 Filipina au pairs made up four percent of the total of 528 au pairs in Denmark. By 2008, there was a total of 2939 au pairs in the country, 73 percent of who were from the Philippines. The Danish Minister for Integration and Development Cooperation, Søren Pind, recently changed the au pair act to enable Danish pensioners to hire au pairs. “This is an easy and non-bureaucratic way to hire domestics”, Pind told the national newspaper Berlingske on 18 May.

“This solidifies the view that the au pair system is not about cultural exchange, but about hiring a private caretaker for pensioners, in the same way that families with children have been hiring such help. The Minister has said that au pairs are domestics, and on top of that this is an incredibly cheap form of domestic labour”, says Helle Stenum.

No au pairs in Finland?

“It would be difficult to find an au pair in Finland” according to sociologist Lise Widding Isaksen.

In order to be an au pair in Finland, the women – and au pairs usually are women – must document that they have prior knowledge about Finland and Finnish culture. They must also sign up for language classes and notify the authorities regarding who pays for the course. There are no available statistics about au pairs in Finland.

Finns look to Estonia to find their cheap, but illegal, cleaners.

“This is a sort of public secret, but there is a lot of daily migration from Estonia to Helsinki”, Lise Widding Isaksen notes. Illegal cleaners travel to the city on the morning ferry, clean houses during the day, and go home again at night. “At the moment I don’t know of anyone who has documented this, or who has researched how much they work or what they are paid. So we do know it happens, but at the same time we don’t know”, she says.

In 2010, Lise Widding Isaksen was the editor for the anthology “Global care work: Gender and migration in Nordic societies”. The first section of the book focuses on the au pair scheme in the Nordic context. Lise Widding Isaksen was one of the first researchers in Norway, and in the Nordic countries, to study au pairs. She started as early as 2002, when the numbers of au pairs were increasing rapidly and the Filipina au pairs were gaining a great reputation as service oriented and excellent care givers.

Significant Nordic differences

Today, Filipina au pairs dominate in Denmark and Norway: 70-80 percent of all au pairs in these countries are Filipina. In Norway, the Directorate of Immigration asserts that the au pair scheme is about cultural exchange and young people who want to learn Norwegian. In Denmark, the au pair regulations have been changed to further restrict the au pairs’ already nearly non-existent rights, according to Catharina Calleman’s article “Cultural exchange or cheap domestic labour?” Danes wants Filipina au pairs, the number of au pairs increase annually and even the parties most hostile to immigration support the au pair scheme. Yet they want to avoid at all cost that the system is misused for, for example, family reunification.

There are no Filipina au pairs in Sweden and Finland. In contrast to Denmark and Norway, Sweden and Finland respected the policy instituted by the Philippines when that country in 1998 banned au pair emigration. The Philippines believed the danger of exploitation was too great. There are only about 200 au pairs in Sweden.

But part of this story is that Sweden and Finland have systems that allow for tax deductions for the purchase of cleaning services. Finland started this system as an experiment in 1997. The experiment worked so well that it was made permanent in 2001. Sweden followed in 2007, when it introduced the so-called “rut avdraget” tax deduction for “domestic related services” (“hushållsnära tjänster”).

Lise Widding Isaksen believes that Swedes and Finns thus “do not need the cheap labour that the au pairs offer in the same way that Norwegians and Danes do”.

Denmark is about to introduce a similar system, and in Norway the conservative parties are considering similar proposals.

An attractive job

According to the 1969 European agreement that the au pair system is based on, au pairs are to be paid “spending money” every month. In the Nordic countries, their pay varies between NOK 2000 (Finland) and NOK 4000 (Norway). In Denmark, au pairs are paid DK 3050. In Sweden, au pairs are largely defined as workers, while the other three countries are clinging to the cultural exchange discourse. But this official version is not supported in research or in the many media stories about au pairs. The Norwegian sociologist Mariya Bikovas could not find any informants from the Philippines who had heard that the job they so dearly wanted was seen as a form of cultural exchange.

“Many save up to come to Norway, or borrow from family and friends. Their time as an au pair in Norway is a great opportunity for them”, Mariya Bikova notes. She is currently in the Philippines interviewing families that the au pairs have left in order to support.

“From friends they hear that the work day is only five hours, and that you get the weekends off, and that the pay is better than in some other countries. For many women, and especially for Filipino women who have been working as domestics in Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuwait with 18 hour days and one day off each month, Norway seems like a very attractive destination.”

Not one of us

There is, in other words, little doubt that the Filipino women’s motivation is economic. And in Denmark, despite not wishing to define the au pair as a worker and afford her rights accordingly, there is openness about this economic motivation. Beyond defining au pairs as domestics, the Minister of Development Cooperation Søren Pind also believes that the au pair system is the world’s best form of development aid. That the au pairs are poorly paid is explained in Denmark by references to two things: that the pay nevertheless is much higher than the Filipino woman would have gotten in the Philippines, and that the high taxes that Danes pay means they cannot afford to pay more.

“This is a re-interpretation of what development aid is. In this interpretation, development aid is hiring a woman from the Global South at a fourth of the pay of a Danish woman, because the woman from the Global South does not have a work permit”, Helle Stenum says. In 2008, she was the first – and remains one of the few – Danish researchers studying the au pair scheme.

“It is apparently acceptable to treat people who come from other parts of the world worse than we treat our own people. This is an expression of a neo-colonial world view, one that suggests that you are worth more if you are Western and white, and worth less if you are not.”

This differential treatment can then be justified by reference to Danish ideals about equality; an equality that according to Helle Stenum is closely tied to a national and ethnic identity. Gender equality ties white women, white men and white classes together, because it is so strongly tied to national identity and ideals of equality, Helle Stenum writes in the article “Au pair migration and new inequalities”.

Helle Stenum has even faced resistance from Danish gender researchers, who are irritated that she researches such a marginal phenomenon.

“The Filipino women are not included in discussions of gender equality. They are a kind of invisible and uncomfortable topic that one does not speak about unless absolutely necessary”.

Responsible labour movement

There are several similarities between the situation in Denmark and Norway, but two main differences nevertheless make the landscapes very dissimilar: the different migration politics, and the fact that the Norwegian labour movement focused on the issue early on.

Lise Widding Isaksen

Lise Widding Isaksen. Photo: Kristian Bråthen

“The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions focused on the issue early on, and the membership in the Norwegian labour movement have taken the issue much more seriously than they have in Denmark”, Lise Widding Isaksen notes.

“The unions quickly researched how many au pairs there were, and quickly framed this issue as a female version of social dumping.”

But the Danish arguments are also in evidence in Norway. The Norwegian host families that Mariya Bikova interviewed justified their choice of hiring an au pair in part by saying that it was a good form of development aid. The families also preferred an au pair from the Philippines to one from Sweden.

“The Swedish au pairs act like Norwegian girls, and that is too close for comfort”, Lise Widding Isaksen says.

Hidden numbers in the EU

Catharina Calleman, who has studied the legal framework for the au pair schemes in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, believes that the lack of statistics and knowledge about au pairs in Finland and Sweden is strange.

“When you do an online search you can see that there are many families, both in Finland and in Sweden, who are looking for au pairs. Thus when looking at the demand, one would think that there are considerable numbers of au pairs in these countries.”

However, in contrast to the Norwegian numbers, the Swedish and Danish numbers for au pairs only refer to those who need a visa. Au pairs from the EU are not included in the statistics. In research that Helle Stenum is currently completing for the EU Parliament, she concludes that there are considerable hidden numbers of au pairs being exchanged between EU countries. Though some are genuine cultural exchanges, Helle Stenum knows that women from poor EU countries travel to rich EU countries as au pairs, and work long hours with low pay and without knowledge of their rights. For Helle Stenum, the solution is obvious: these women must be seen as workers, not as au pairs. And if Danes perceive a need for private domestic help for the elderly and families with children, then the labour market should be opened up. This has been done in Canada, where the au pair scheme is prohibited and has been replaced by immigration schemes that provide a work permit for persons who wish to work as private domestics.

“But it is important to acknowledge the reasons people have for wanting to employ the au pairs, and not just focus on it being wrong”, Helle Stenum warns.

“It is important to see the au pair scheme in a larger context, which is related to what is happening in society at large and in the labour market. It may seem like this is about only a few people, but in the end it is about how we wish to organise our welfare states in the future.”

By: Ida Irene Bergstrøm

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