A Filipina au pair's success story
MANILA, Philippines – Like many other Filipinos, it was need that drove 30-year-old Lyn to leave the familiar comforts of home and seek her fortune abroad.
Her father was sick, medical bills were piling up, and the salary she was earning in the Philippines couldn't pay for everything. She tried her luck as a kindergarten teacher in Brunei, but the money still wasn't enough.
A friend had told her about the au pair program in Europe, but taking the plunge was a difficult decision.
“From being a candidate to a supervisory position back in the Philippines, to being a teacher in Brunei, and then becoming an au pair, people thought my career was going down," Lyn says.
“They told me, ‘You graduated from La Salle, why will you go there as an au pair?’ They thought it was the same as being a maid,” she adds.
It didn’t help that she had heard about troubling stories of abuse in a program intended for cultural exchange.
In the au pair program, young people are invited to immerse in a new culture by living with a host family in return for light household chores.
But there have been stories of Filipino au pairs being abused by their host families: overworked like slaves and underpaid. One Filipina even encountered being sexually harassed by her host father shortly after stepping off the airport.
But Lyn had no choice. Under pressure of mounting debt, she decided to take a chance and filed her papers for an au pair visa to Denmark.
“Nag-desisyon ako na pumunta para sa pamilya ko, kaya pinanindigan ko na lang,” she says. (I decided to go for the sake of my family, so I decided to just stand by my decision.)
“Sinabi ko na lang sa sarili ko, nasa sa akin naman kung magpapa-abuso ako o hindi.” (I just told myself, it’s up to me whether I would let myself be abused or not.)
Four years and several vacation trips around Europe later, Lyn is happy she took that risk. She is now on her way to realizing her dream of pursuing further studies, and settling down to life in her new home.
It’s a reality that there have been cases of abuse in the au pair system, but as Lyn’s experience shows, there have been success stories too.
"Au pair" means on equal terms, and those who go through the program are supposed to be treated as guests by their host families.
In an ideal set-up, the program is enticing: in exchange for household work, au pairs get pocket allowance, days off to explore their host country, and free time to pursue language lessons.
The perks were evident in Lyn’s case. Her host family paid for all her expenses –even her toiletries, phone, and travel within the city. Her Norwegian host mom also shouldered Lyn’s language classes.
Lyn enjoyed a comfortable schedule. Her days begin at 7 am, when she goes out to feed and walk the family’s dogs. She spends her free afternoons meeting friends and exploring the city. Work starts at 5 pm; Lyn’s job primarily involves looking after her sick host dad, giving him his medicine and watching television with him.
These are all part of her light chores, but it doesn’t mean she is considered a domestic worker.
The Philippine agency handling the departure of Filipino au pairs emphasizes the cultural nature of the program, but this hasn't stopped Filipinos from saving their pocket allowance to send as remittances back home, or to enter the program with the sole intention of working there.
Suffering in silence
In the late 90s, reports of abused Filipino au pairs began to worry officials. Host countries were rocked by controversial media reports of au pairs being forced to work for more than 12 hours. Some were ordered to clean the houses of their hosts’ friends or relatives. Even more troubling were allegations of sexual abuse.
The Philippines temporarily withdrew from the program, but later lifted the ban after stricter guidelines were put into place.
Lyn considers herself lucky. She has had two host families – one in Denmark and another in Norway – and only had to seek advice from an au pair help center once.
“For one year, my host family in Norway was good to me. Eventually my host mom became temperamental. Whenever she was not in the mood, she would let slip abusive words. She would tell me, ‘Use your brains,’” Lyn says.
“I felt uneasy and afraid of doing things that might anger her. It really affected me emotionally,” she adds.
Lyn took it all in stride, but she drew the line at physical abuse. “Aalis ako kung sobrang grabe na at hindi makatao.” (I would leave if the situation became unbearable and inhumane.)
Not all au pairs would be so quick to consider leaving the comforts of Europe. Lyn knows this; NGOs and the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) know this; abusive host families know this too, and use it to their advantage.
Instead of filing complaints, au pairs themselves preferred to suffer in silence than risk having to be sent home empty-handed.
“Some think they’re there as maids. Some can’t refuse their host families' request to work extra hours, to the point that the hosts abuse this hospitality."
"Filipinos don’t speak up and fight for their rights. They’re afraid of being deported and losing the P35,000 salary they can send back home,” Lyn says.
Despite being marred by highly publicized cases of abuse, there have been happy endings and success stories too. Ivy Miravalles, head of CFO’s Migrant Integration and Education Division, says some au pairs were even able to pursue graduate studies abroad, with their host families shouldering the tuition.
Some au pairs took the cultural experience to heart and used their free time to travel around Europe.
When Lyn first came to Denmark in October 2010, she had difficulty adjusting to her new home. Culture shock set in, and she was not used to what she calls the straightforwardness of Europeans.
She eventually worked up the confidence to explore Denmark on her own and even travel to nearby countries.
“Europeans are sociable. Over dinner, my host family would tell me about places to visit and things to do in their country. The children I taught English were close to me. My weekends were always free, and my hosts trusted me enough to let me go around on my own,” she says.
Not only was she able to experience the good life in Europe, she was able to share it with her family too. Lyn has managed to pay for a new house – her pride and joy, she says – and had taken her mother around Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.
And in a couple of months, Lyn herself would be on her way to a new life.
After she completes her second au pair contract in Norway, she plans to pursue graduate studies, get a job, and settle down with her Norwegian fiancé.
Lyn has just passed the national language exam last May. Her fiance’s family has constantly been supportive of her, and she knows there are many opportunities available to her through sheer determination and hard work.
“By becoming an au pair, I wasn’t just stuck on one path. I have several opportunities open to me here in Norway,” she says.
For every story of abuse and exploitation, there are those like Lyn’s. Undaunted by the risks, Lyn believes being aware and standing up for rights is one form of protection against abuse.
“Kailangan lang magbasa ng rules para alam nila na may alam ako at hindi ka nila basta basta magagamit,” she says. (You just need to know the rules so they know that they cannot abuse you.)
It was her family's need that drove Lyn to look for work abroad. It will be for the sake of her new family that she will stay, in a country that she has now learned to call home. – Rappler.com