When a cultural program becomes exploitation
MANILA, Philippines – Lucia knew nothing about becoming an au pair in Norway, but her friend’s reassurances were enough to make her board the plane.
She would be treated as an equal, she was told. And the program looked enticing on paper too: for just several hours of light household chores, Lucia would have the chance to go to Europe, learn the culture, and earn a little money from the stipend given by her host family – all part of the cultural exchange scheme known as the au pair program.
For many young Filipino women, the offer is hard to pass up. Lucia saw in it an opportunity to put her brother through school and help her mother pay off the family’s debts.
Stepping off the plane, she felt nervous, unsure of what to expect. Her host father met her at the airport, said hi, and kissed her on the cheek.
Lucia was barely a day into her new home, and already, her nightmarish ordeal had begun.
“When we sat down in the car, he started to kiss me. I stopped him. I said, 'What are you doing?' While he drove, he took my hand and placed it between his legs. I said no.”
At her host family's home one day, Lucia found herself trapped with the man who should have been like a father to her.
While the children and their mother were busy downstairs, Lucia's host father slipped inside a room she had been cleaning, locked the door, and forced himself on her.
“He was just laughing at me….I tried my best to kick him, and he warned me not to make any noise. I said, 'Please don’t.' I couldn’t fight him; he was a big man. I pretended nothing was happening.”
Lucia’s story was one of the horrific stories of abuse and exploitation of Filipino au pairs featured in a documentary entitled “Masters and Servants,” created by Norwegian broadcasting station NRK.
The investigative documentary aired last year turned the spotlight on the abuses suffered by Filipino au pairs, who come to Europe looking for a cultural experience and end up being treated as domestic slaves.
Au pair ≠ domestic helpers
Au pair placement is a cultural exchange program adopted by the Council of Europe in 1969. It opened the doors for young people under the age of 30 to expand their cultural knowledge by living and interacting with a host family.
Au pair means “on equal terms,” and those who participate in the program are supposed to be treated as members of their host family. They are given free board and lodging, pocket money, and time off to attend language courses.
In return, they are asked to render less than 30 hours of household chores a week.
Julia, a teacher from Mindanao who dreamed of traveling around Europe, thought that becoming an au pair would be lighter job than working as a domestic helper. Instead of what she had been promised, she was forced to work nonstop for 40 to 50 hours every week doing household chores, preparing breakfast for the family’s children, taking them to school, and babysitting them at home.
“I was not treated as an au pair but a helper,” Julia says. “To my hosts, my contract with them was just a piece of paper that nobody follows.”
“I thought, how long will I suffer? I felt like I was in prison. I didn’t want to stay there anymore. I left them a resignation letter, telling them I was not happy that I had been working too much.”
Labor abuse is the most prevalent kind of exploitation in the au pair program, says Ivy Miravalles, officer-in-charge of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) Migrant Integration and Education Division.
It was these reports of overwork and abuse – almost tantamount to slavery – that prompted the Philippine ban on the program in 1998.
Anecdotal and media reports of excessive hours, overwork, and sexual harassment in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden alarmed Philippine authorities in the late 1990s, prompting the government to impose a unilateral ban on the program.
But the problems didn’t stop there. While some countries accepted the ban, others – such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway – continued to issue au pair visas. To get around the ban, Filipinos resorted to bribing immigration officials or traveling to Hong Kong or Singapore to process their applications there.
Despite the ban, the number of au pairs quadrupled in some countries: from 475 au pairs in Denmark in 2004, the number increased to 2,140 in 2010.
In the Netherlands, the residence permits given to au pairs increased from 103 in 2005 to 461 in 2010.
That posed a new dilemma: how monitor and keep track of these "underground" au pairs who became even more vulnerable.
“If we closed our eyes to the existence of the program, despite the Philippine ban, there was an opportunity for them to be abused because of the absence of guidelines that offer minimum protection,” Miravalles says.
The ban was lifted in select countries in 2010, and in all European countries two years later. This time, the Philippines set its own guidelines: host families must provide health insurance, a minimum stipend, and a contract that follows the rules on maximum working hours.
Prospective applicants must have their contracts authenticated by the Philippine embassy. They must also attend a country familiarization seminar (CFS), where they are briefed about their rights, what to do in case of abuse and contract violations, and who to contact for help.
Only after they have passed these safety nets will they be allowed to leave for their new host countries.
Empowering au pairs
Awareness of her rights and her tenacity to assert them saved 31-year-old Rosie from potentially abusive host families.
A native of Tuguegarao City, Rosie went to Europe to fulfill her wanderlust dreams and to experience firsthand life on the other side of the world.
Becoming an au pair, she says, was her ticket to that cultural experience. Unlike other Filipinos who mistakenly thought the au pair program was the same as being a domestic helper, Rosie knew what she was getting into. She knew about the cultural aspect and her rights as an au pair. She knew enough not to give in to fear and intimidation when it came time for her to walk away.
“I have a delinquent reputation among the families I left,” she says. “But I left [them] for good reason.”
Rosie understands that some Filipinos find it difficult to say no when asked to work extra hours. She says it's part of being treated as an equal family member.
“There were moments when the families were asking more than they should, and that is fine. If you are living with hosts as an equal member of the family, it is normal that from time to time, you take one for the family as you would in your very own,” she says.
“You just learn to give some and take some,” Rosie adds. “I am okay with hard work, but I am not okay with disrespect and injustice.”
It was in Denmark where she got her first taste of abuse. Only a few weeks in, Rosie knew she could not stay there very long: there was more work, unreasonable demands from her hosts, and after she refused to do more work, Rosie got herself kicked out.
Her host family in Norway had a bad reputation. Apart from explicitly asking Rosie to work more hours, they also wanted to keep her passport, for fear that she would kidnap the children while they were away.
One of the family’s previous au pairs had also warned Rosie to make sure she had her visa and legal papers in order.
“I learned that [the family had] a habit of pushing their au pairs to a point of hopeless situation, visa-wise. They terminated [the au pair before me] just two weeks before her visa expired, making the whole search for another host family to be able to stay a really challenging feat.”
“They also had one whom they literally put on the plane to be sent back home, and the poor girl, probably scared, intimidated and didn't know the law, just caved in. I wasn't about to give them that satisfaction.”
It was easier in Rosie’s case to leave her host families because she was in it for the cultural experience. But many other Filipinos, who see the program as a financial opportunity, are hesitant to leave an abusive home.
Their right to stay in Europe is tied to her contract with her hosts. If they leave, they only have two weeks to look for a new host, or they’ll have to go home.
The au pairs’ dilemma
Au pairs in Europe tend to compare their situation with domestic helpers and think that they’re better off, says Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA).
“Our women would not come home if they find themselves working two hours in excess of the au pair program,” Sana says, "Even if the government of the host country reassures them of their rights, for them it’s not that easy to believe.”
“We need to break the mindset that if they complain, their opportunities in Europe will be jeopardized. But what can you do? Many of them are fighting for limited opportunities so they’d want to keep them for as long as they can."
Ana Lindenhann of the Filipina Au Pair Network also raises another concern: of Filipinos who take in additional work just to earn extra money.
Under au pair rules, taking extra work is prohibited. But some Filipinos take the risk to pay off the debts they owe to the fixers and agencies that landed them host families in Europe.
Abusive host families can then use this to force Filipinos to work longer hours.
“Some host families know the au pairs won’t report breach of contract or abuse because they can report them to the authorities for taking additional work,” Lindenhann says.
The monitoring problem
Since the new guidelines were put in place following the lifting of the Philippine ban on the program, Lindenhann says there has been a marked improvement in the condition of Filipino au pairs.
Many of them are now aware of their rights and know that they are not supposed to be treated as cheap domestic help.
But on the authorities’ part, monitoring remains a difficult task, because they rely on the au pairs themselves to come forward and report on their situation.
European host countries are receptive to handling cases of abuse, says Sana. But this won’t work if the monitoring system is wanting.
“These European countries are receptive to complaints because of their campaigns against trafficking. And in the au pair scheme, there’s always that space for trafficking. You may have good policies, but if no one monitors the households of these au pairs, there is always room for abuse,” she says.
Lindenhann says the situation is worse in the countryside, where there are fewer Filipino communities to look to for support. She recalled how one Filipino, whose host family kept horses and lived outside the city, forced the au pair to sleep in the stables.
With no cases filed, exploitative families can go unpunished, putting others at risk.
It’s a cause for concern, says Miravalles, because the au pair program is continuing to gain popularity among Filipinos.
A total of 5,209 Filipinos have registered with the CFO as of 2013. Most applicants are female and educated – nurses, social workers, and teachers among them – bound for countries like Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany.
The au pair program has sparked debate in European countries, with some questioning the enforcement of the cultural nature of the program as more and more young people join it for the money.
For both Miravalles and Rosie, the au pair program provides young Filipinos a good cultural experience if both the au pair and the host agree to abide by the program's real intention.
“The program is good, but people don't come with instruction manuals. If everything is taken word for word according to the contract, the safety and interests of an au pair are well considered," Rosie says.
She adds, "The trouble comes when both host family and au pair bargain outside of the contract." – Rappler.com