What is it that attracts us so much to the Global North? ( the west). Some of us are willing to give it all in order to move abroad. Time and again I have mentioned that grass is greener where we water it. However, that sounds quite hypocritical considering I am also here and not watering my Legal grass back in Kenya. It is a decision some of us make. For some, it is an unavoidable opportunity. Through my interaction with some Au pairs in Denmark I have found some demeaning ‘truths’ about this placement. However, It is not all sorrow. Some Au pairs have had exciting cultural exchange as this programme is meant to be for.
It is a Wednesday when we organize to meet up for a movie with two of my friends who have been Au Pairs here in Denmark. It is intriguing listening to them talk about their host families. In fact, one of them is late for the dinner date before the movie and her excuse is that the host mum intentionally kept her working for longer hours. They share their sorrows working for these educated busy European women. These events lead to a deep conversation on what is the actual role of Au pairs?
I let them tell it. “It is basically being a maid, a slave” one begins. Despite the written rules of being equal, that can never happen, especially not when living under these people’s roofs. Let’s call her Carol. I came to Denmark in 2016 after being in France for three months from which I wasn’t paid. This was a good family that never treated me lesser. The only problem with France was that the money was too little. Denmark was appealing since the money was twice the former. I have responsibilities back at home which include the loan we secured to apply for the program.
On coming here, I found an agent who helped me get my first host family. It was a family of four. They were so kind to me at first but that changed. Eventually they introduced me to `black cleaning jobs ‘and later wanted 2000 kroners from it so that they could only pay half of the required Au pair amount. “How unfair?” She asked us. Don’t forget I was still required to do all my Au pair duties. These guys started mistreating me.
I wanted to know more but first, it was interesting to hear her speak so passionately about money. Clearly, it was the most motivating factor. To her it was not a cultural exchange, it was a business, a job like any other. At some point she demanded that the family pay her full stipend of 4150 Kroners. Her justification was that her cleaning jobs were her hobbies and the host family should not take advantage of it. This brought in tensions between their relationship and one month later her contract was terminated .
Luckily she had secured another family whose story was similar to the first one. This is the family we were discussing on this day. She described Danes as being as cold as their weather. I could not help but ask if she didn’t feel like she was cold too since she was taking advantage of the programme for her financial gain. This did not go so well. Anyway, I was curious to know where she actually slept.
“Oh darling, in their basement.” Can you imagine during that week when we had the negative degrees temperatures, this lady came to my room to complain that I had left the heater on for too long? Nancy, I have to wear my winter jacket indoors. I actually read that living in the basement among the danes is not only illegal but also a sign that you are temporary or a lesser member of the family. Au pair is modern day slavery I tell you. These guys don’t even add my plate to the table during dinner. There is this time she poured out water from a heating kette claiming it was too much which was a waste of power. There is nothing like equal terms in this job.
Shortly after we had this conversation, her contract was terminated on a short notice as a result of the family’s inability to afford her. This left her desperately applying to other families but she had a short period left to continue as an Au pair in Denmark. Her only option was to apply for it in other countries or remain illegal here. Fortunately or unfortunately, she got a family but her application was denied by the immigration requiring her to move back to her country on a short notice. This left her so distressed.
Luckily, she had already gotten herself a boyfriend who they agreed to get married and she could remain in Denmark on legal terms. This is usually the end goal with most of these Au pairs. Sometimes, the age gap of the partners they settle with is too big but as long as they get the papers, the end goal is achieved. As for the host families, There is nothing cultural about this programme, at least not when you are paying someone to live with you. It is just cheap labour as compared to paying a maid.
The Au Pair field is surrounded by ambiguities. The popular cultural exchange programme has turned to a cheap migrant work arrangement in most European countries. The neo- liberal welfare restructuring has been blamed for this since the state provided services have declined which has led families to seek for private solutions. The labour union that organizes domestic workers in Denmark published a series of articles in 2008 on `Fiilipina au pairs and the exploitation of women from a global perspective.´ It highlighted how women from the global South become “global underpaid labour power” working for the “rich western women.”
Carol’s case thus illuminates the ambiguity inherent in the role of Au pairs as well as the unequal bargaining power. Au pairs in Denmark are neither defined as students nor workers. This creates a lot ambiguity in the scheme which allows room for exploitation. An even more unique feature of the au pair placement is the lack of clear definitions of their roles. Unlike other forms of domestic workers, the official requirement of Au pairs is that they receive a status as a member of the host family.The entire existence of the Au Pair in the host country depends on the host family which defines the temporality of the Au Pair position. The two parties moreover, have unequal access to social and economic powers.
In the next post I will talk about how some families have arranged to share Au pair services among themselves and have one of them pay for it.