Au pairs: win-win for women or imported exploitation?An increasing number of Danes are engaging the services of au pairs from the Philippines in order to run their families without compromising on their careers. Some call it a win-win situation; others view it as the exploitation of cheap labour. But what does this popular au pair scheme mean in terms of equality?
When a plane lands at Copenhagen Airport with connection from the Philippine capital Manila, it often means good news for Danish families with young children. Perhaps one of the arriving passengers is a Filipino woman who will spend the coming many months in a Danish home as an au pair?
An increasing number of Danish families with young children are choosing to take on an au pair to help with running the home and looking after of the children. According to official statistics, the number of au pairs in Denmark has doubled over the past five years. The vast majority of these au pairs now come from the Philippines and their arrival is often eagerly awaited by their Danish hosts. The reason for this is that in a country where almost all women are part of the labour market, and where women’s magazines constantly write about how to combine a working life and family life, an au pair is priceless when trying to maintain a manageable family life without compromising on a career.
“A well-known woman once said that the Danish shop opening hours law (Lukkeloven) was the most important thing that had happened for women of her generation. In my generation, its au pair girls.”
This is a view shared by many Danes. One of these is Inge Berneke, author of a book about women and careers and a consultant in the company Egon Zehnder International, which recruits top executives to posts within companies and on boards. “A well-known woman once said that the Danish shop opening hours law (Lukkeloven) was the most important thing that had happened for women of her generation. In my generation, its au pair girls.”
‘Lukkeloven’ is a Danish law that governs when shops in Denmark may be open. After many years restricting shops from being open in the evenings and on Sundays, the law was amended to allow customers to buy their milk, vegetables and other groceries at more convenient and more flexible times of the week.
An old scheme – a new debate
Au pairs have existed in Denmark for many years. The au pair scheme was originally conceived as a cultural exchange programme – to begin with, mainly among western and European countries. Young people could experience a different country and learn a new language by moving in with a host family who they assisted with childcare and housework in return for board, lodging and some pocket money. The scheme lived up to its literal translation of its name ‘au pair’, which means ‘on an equal footing’.
Whereas in the past the scheme has never been the subject of much discussion in Denmark, it is now a hotly debated topic. This change has come about as a result of the fact that the picture of an au pair has changed dramatically since Denmark opened the door to au pairs from developing countries back in the 1990s. Upon opening the door to au pairs from these new countries, the number of au pairs in Denmark has soared from 318 individuals in 1996 to 2,937 individuals in 2008. The new legislation means that the vast majority of au pairs now coming to Denmark come primarily from these developing countries – the Philippines in particular. This development has lead various researchers, labour organisations and social commentators to raise the question of to what extent the au pair scheme has now become a way for privileged Danes to exploit less privileged Filipinos as cheap domestic labour. The development has sparked a number of research reports looking at uncovering exactly who these ‘new’ au pairs coming to Denmark really are and examining their situation both in Denmark and at home.
Cultural exchange replaced by domestic labour
The studies point to a number of tendencies. Firstly, the majority of today’s au pairs in Denmark come from the Philippines and they have chosen to come here to fully or partly support their families back home. Secondly, according to a 2008 report conducted for the Danish association of trades unions (FOA) by migration specialist Helle Stenum, the original intention that the au pair scheme be fundamentally a cultural exchange scheme is no longer true.
“The scheme is used by both parties as a ‘live-in maid’ scheme – also known as a domestic labour. Most of the au pairs who come to Denmark come here to earn money, and one way they can do this is through the au pair scheme”, explains Helle Stenum from Denmark’s Aalborg University.
“The au pair scheme has turned into a scheme which systematically ensures that we have domestic staff working in Danish homes for wages and under conditions that we would otherwise never accept”,
The report also shows that the experiences of these au pairs vary greatly. Some of them settle in easily and co-exist well with their host families. Others experience tough working conditions, for example having to work much longer hours that those allowed.
As a result of this, the Danish trade unions who look after the interests of workers are very critical of the au pair scheme. In fact, the Danish trade union FOA (the third largest in Denmark) has gone so far as to call au pairs “modern-day slaves”.
“The au pair scheme has turned into a scheme which systematically ensures that we have domestic staff working in Danish homes for wages and under conditions that we would otherwise never accept”, explained Jakob Bang, FOA General Secretary, in a 2010 press release.
One of the problems relating to this is that an au pair cannot gain official status as a ‘worker’ in Denmark because, in the eyes of the Danish state, she is in the country on a cultural exchange. According to the unions, this means that she is therefore automatically excluded from the rights to which everyone else in the labour market is entitled. Instead, she must settle for (by Danish standards) a very low wage. In addition, she is left purely at the mercy of her host family as an au pair loses her residency permit the moment the family no longer wants her.
Saddled with debt before arriving
Another problem uncovered by studying au pairs in Denmark is that Filipino au pairs often get themselves into economic difficulties by coming to Denmark. This was a finding of a 2010 report from The Danish Centre against Human Trafficking. Based on a number of interviews with au pairs, it found that many were forced to put themselves in debt in order to even come to Denmark.
The reason behind this is that the Philippines has for years prohibited its citizens from travelling to Denmark as au pairs because of the many stories which continually surface in the media about how Filipino au pairs have been exploited in Denmark. This has meant that those Filipinos who despite the ban have decided to come to Denmark have had to bribe middlemen and corrupt officials in the airport to be allowed to leave the country.
For some of the au pairs, this has amounted to paying up to DKK 13,000 – or almost four months’ average Danish au pair wages – to leave the Philippines for Denmark. This debt is often so large that it has meant that many have had to take on illegal work in addition to their au pair jobs. It has also forced some to remain illegally in Denmark after stopping their au pair jobs, to earn enough to pay off their debts.
In the autumn of 2010, Denmark and The Philippines endeavoured to solve this problem together. The countries entered into an agreement that The Philippines would lift its travel ban in return for Denmark guaranteeing that Danish host families be required to take out an insurance policy for their au pair covering the au pair’s transport home in the event of illness or death.
But the reports and the heightened media coverage of the au pair scheme have sparked off a debate which continues to rage. And one of the issues it brings to the fore is that of equality.
Farewell to the perfect mother
In the eyes of many, the Nordic countries (including Denmark) have for years been at the front line when it comes to equality. Not least is this due to the fact that for three decades the Scandinavian countries have developed family-oriented policies which ensure that Danish women can be active in the labour market – also when they have children and start families.
As a result of this, some people believe that the au pair scheme is a gift to women’s equality. With the help of an au pair, a Danish woman can carry out her job as well without the family’s domestic life suffering. And several well-known Danish politicians have spoken out in support of the au pair scheme and encouraged Danish families with children to make use of it – rather than allowing their lives to be governed by classical gender perceptions about what a woman and a mother should be able to manage.
“Many have an image of the perfect mother as someone who stays at home all day baking and who is always on call for her children”, was how former Families Minister, Carina Christensen, put it in an interview with Danish broadsheet Politiken in 2007.
“If the company you work for is a global company and your customers or employees are located somewhere else in the world, you simply can’t drop everything and collect your children at 4 o’clock every afternoon. So for these families, an au pair really is an invaluable asset. It is these au pairs who allow us to maintain some semblance of ordered family life”
Prominent women who have made their careers at the top of the Danish business community have, similarly, spoken out in the media explaining that the au pair scheme allows them to have their modern women’s lives with both careers and families.
One such woman is Inge Berneke, who points out that the Danish social model makes it difficult for today’s families with young children to combine their jobs and their home life. This is a result of the fact that the Danish social model has for years been based upon the false perception that all Danes work a daytime, 37-hour week and therefore they can collect their children from school or kindergarten after they have finished work at four o’clock. But this model no longer fits the realities of the Danish labour market which –in the private sector at least – has become flexible to meet the requirements of a globalised world.
“If the company you work for is a global company and your customers or employees are located somewhere else in the world, you simply can’t drop everything and collect your children at 4 o’clock every afternoon. So for these families, an au pair really is an invaluable asset. It is these au pairs who allow us to maintain some semblance of ordered family life”, tells Inge Berneke.
“The majority of au pairs come to Denmark in order to earn money, and from their point of view it’s a well-paid job that they’re getting. And for the Danish family, it can almost be a necessity to have an au pair if both the parents wish to have a career in the private sector at a certain level”
In her view, the au pair scheme is a definite win-win situation with both parties being of value to each other.
“The majority of au pairs come to Denmark in order to earn money, and from their point of view it’s a well-paid job that they’re getting. And for the Danish family, it can almost be a necessity to have an au pair if both the parents wish to have a career in the private sector at a certain level”, she explains.
Care-drains and sore points
Though many share the views of Inge Berneke, it is not a point of view without controversy. There are also Danes who believe that it is a problem when a Danish mother – on the basis of her desire to both pursue her career and simultaneously maintain an ordered family life – brings a less privileged Filipino woman to the country. By doing this, the Filipino woman is leaves a gap as carer back home leading to a phenomenon known as the ‘care-drain’.
“The white mother has merely transferred her equality issue over to the dark-skinned mother, who in turn becomes a Skype-mother”, tells researcher Helle Stenum.
Denmark has tried to combat this problem by requiring that Filipino au pairs be under the age of 30 and have no children. But the 2010 report from The Danish Centre against Human Trafficking showed that this rule is frequently flaunted because checking the accuracy of the au pairs’ information is, in practice, impossible.
“The white mother has merely transferred her equality issue over to the dark-skinned mother, who in turn becomes a Skype-mother”
And if the debate in Denmark is anything to go by, then the use of au pairs from poor countries by Danish women is a sore point for many. One commentator, Journalist Angela Brink, recently wrote in Politiken that people look down upon women who pay others to look after their household duties because Danes still have the perception that a ‘proper’ mother is one who bakes all day and is always at home when the children get off school.
“I challenge any woman who doubts that this is the case to let her child be collected from kindergarten by a young Asian au pair for a period of a month. The result is a reaction of blunt negativity from your closest environment, who you otherwise may have presumed to be supporters of women procuring the necessary help to allow them to continue where they may be within the labour market”, wrote Angela Brink.
Equality – for whom?
Cultural Sociologist Connie Carøe Christiansen has studied au pairs in Denmark and she has experienced that many Danish women feel uncomfortable if they have an au pair and are asked about it. It is not something about which women are particularly vocal.
“I believe that having such inequality so close to us is both embarrassing and uncomfortable. After all, as Danes we strongly believe that we stand shoulder to shoulder with people in other parts of the world and that equality is one of our core values as a nation”, she explains.
The researcher has interviewed Filipino au pairs in Denmark who told her about their lives and their dreams. Interviewing Danish women who have an au pair is something she would like to do, as well.
“How do middle-class Danish women deal with the whole equality issue in relation to au pairs? The topic seems to be a thorn in the side for many of them; most of them can see that it’s a problem. We live in a global world of inequality and when we hire an au pair, we’re bringing this inequality right into our own living room. When we pay to bring a poor woman from the south into our own homes, this is also a reflection of just how privileged we ourselves are”, tells Connie Carøe Christiansen.
”We live in a global world of inequality and when we hire an au pair, we’re bringing this inequality right into our own living room. When we pay to bring a poor woman from the south into our own homes, this is also a reflection of just how privileged we ourselves are”
She is surprised that in this respect the whole au-pair issue has not attracted more interest from the Danish women’s movement. It was only as recently as two years ago that the Danish umbrella organisation Kvinderådet (The Women’s Council in Denmark), which represents a wide range of women’s organisations, took its first step to accommodate the needs of these au pairs. On the initiative of the Filipino women’s organisation Babaylan, Kvinderådet extended its weekly advice service with a voluntary councillor from Babaylan who spoke the two main Filipino languages, thus allowing Filipino women to seek help and advice.
“This is an issue that should have been embraced by the women’s movement. But it has only been done so reluctantly – and very slowly. I think there are several explanations. Firstly, the women’s movement has been preoccupied with the inequality between men and women here in Denmark, for example in areas of different pay for men and women. But also it can be attributed to the fact that it requires a recognition that inequality exists within our own ranks – between privileged Danish women and less-privileged Filipino women”, explains Connie Carøe Christiansen.
An ongoing debate
The discussion about the Danish au pair situation will no doubt continue for a long time yet. Are these Filipino au pairs living proof that gender, class, social status and citizenship determine the balance of power in a world of great global inequality – a world where Danish women can now exploit Filipino labour to create more equality for themselves?
Or are our concerns over exaggerated because the Filipino au pairs are in fact strong, independent women who travel out into the world to become richer, both in terms of economic wealth but also in terms of experience?
“Of course they face some challenges when they come here,” explains Inge Berneke, “because it’s always difficult to live in such close proximity to a family in a culture you don’t know. And some Danish families are better at taking on an au pair than others. But this is the way that it’s always been for Danish girls who for many years have been going to France, Britain and the USA in basically the same way.”
“You have to make a choice – either you implement the au pair scheme the way it was originally devised, with all the inherent freedoms, cultural exchange and dignity. Otherwise, you hire a domestic help and pay real wages.
The latest point to be voiced in the debate has come from Danish Minister for Development, Søren Pind, who described the scheme as “the world’s best foreign aid programme”.
However, this is a picture that those in the Philippines do not recognise.
“You have to make a choice – either you implement the au pair scheme the way it was originally devised, with all the inherent freedoms, cultural exchange and dignity. Otherwise, you hire a domestic help and pay real wages. The liberation of the women of the First World should not happen at the expense of the women of the Third World. And for Filipino women, there is no empowerment whatsoever in receiving pocket money for their work”, was the reaction from Annie Geron, president of the Filipino public workers association to the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information.