An independent organization that offers legal aid to women in Norway is proposing withdrawal from the international au pair system. 90 percent of the roughly 3,000 au pairs in Norway come from the Philippines, according to an earlier report by labour research organization FAFO.
The au pair system brings young foreign women to Norway under the premise of cultural exchange. The organization (Juridisk rådgivning for kvinner, JURK) fears that too many ends up working as poorly paid domestic help and are vulnerable to abuse.
Camouflage for migrant labour
“The au pair system camouflages migrant labour and can lead to social dumping,” said Lene Løvdal, who is in charge of legal rights and special projects for JURK,
“We can raise the question whether the au pair system is outdated.”
In extreme cases, Løvdal told NRK, it can also amount to human trafficking. There have been cases, also in Norway, where young women travelling abroad to live with host families end up working long hours as housemaids and child minders, don’t receive the language and cultural experiences they’re promised and even have been subject to sexual abuse and confinement.
Norwegian authorities have proposed means of better protecting au pairs, but JURK’s legal experts have concluded that they’re still vulnerable to exploitation. They travel to countries like Norway for a limited period to experience life in another part of the world, to perform some work for their host families but also to learn the language and culture.
Reality, once in their new homes, can be very different since the au pairs become so dependent on their hosts. JURK contends au pairs must be viewed as employees and subject to other programs that secure their rights “both formally and in reality.”
Not an easy conclusion
Løvdal said the legal organization’s conclusion was not arrived at hastily and that it wasn’t easy to recommend that Norway should wind down its own au pair system,
“There are many good host families and several positive aspects of cultural exchange,” she said.
It’s nonetheless difficult to secure the rights of the young women, also those of Norwegian women who would also stand to lose the possibility of travelling to other European countries as au pairs.
The biggest challenge is that au pairs live where they work, and it’s thus difficult to separate working time from free time. Their temporary residence is tied to their au pair contracts and because they’re in their new countries for such a short time, they’re not well-advised of their own rights.
“This all leads to a disproportionate balance of power between the au pair and the au pair’s family,” Løvdal said.
Løvdal said the Norwegian authorities could replace the current au pair system with another program for cultural exchange that wouldn’t, among other things, combine residence with work.
JURK which holds information meetings for au pairs every other Friday.