Part 2: The au pair recruitment business

Having traveled to the Philippines herself, Sigrid was supportive of the cultural exchange aspect of the program and saw its potential to allow the girls to 'move up with an education'

MANILA, Philippines – When Elena’s host family asked her in 2013 if she paid anything to get to Denmark, Elena said no. She had been warned that admitting any kind of payment would get her into trouble and possibly deported.

It was only when she talked to the other Filipino au pairs in Denmark that she learned the truth. You could apply directly for a host family on an au pair site and you would only have to play for incidentals like visa application fees.

“Naiinis talaga ako, inutang pa namin yung pera na yun,” said Elena, who now works in another country within the region and spoke on condition of anonymity because she doesn’t want to be traced by her family. “Madami pa kaming niloko niya,” she said in an interview last July.

(I was really annoyed. We had to take out a loan for that money. There were many of us whom she duped.)

There are those who knew the recruiters personally so they would rather not see them get penalized. Lea (not her real name), who is from a province in the Southern Tagalog region and her two other friends were asked in 2013 by a neighbor to pay as much as P20,000 each as a “processing fee” for their application as au pairs.

“She was supposed to go herself, but there was something wrong with her medical records. She asked my friends and me to go and take her place instead, but we have to pay her in dollars. The amount was worth P15,000-P20,000,” recalled Lea.

This was in 2013, when the ban was already lifted and those who wanted to apply as au pairs could do so openly, without having to pay another party to clandestinely fix their application.

She said one of her friends got scared and backed out, while she and her other friend went as far as submitting their passport. She grew suspicious because her neighbor could not show them the office that would supposedly process their application.

“I checked with POEA [Philippine Overseas Employment Agency]. They told me that I should not deal with these kinds of people,” she said. When asked for the name of the recruiter, however, Lea balked.

“May I not just give her name? I don’t think she victimized anybody as I can still see her in our neighborhood,” she requested during an interview also last July.






“If you look at the law on human trafficking, it’s stated there that debt bondage is one of the means of abuse.”


Other factors like intimidation cannot be discounted.

“Some say that their recruiters have threatened to bring harm to families back home if they go to the authorities,” Therese Marie Baba Christensen, a consultant for the Au Pair Network, said in May. The Au Pair Network is a group of 3 organizations in Copenhagen that lead support and counseling assistance for au pairs in Denmark.

Illegal recruitment

The Migrant Worker Act of 1995 defines illegal recruitment as charging or accepting “directly or indirectly any amount greater than that specified in the schedule of allowable fees prescribed by the Secretary of Labor and Employment, or to make a worker pay the recruiter or its agents any amount greater than that actually loaned or advanced to him.”

According to the Department of Labor and Employment, the allowed amount for placement fees is equivalent to a worker’s one month salary as stipulated in his employment contract. However, this excludes the costs of documentation and processing.

Based on the new improved au pair scheme which took effect last July 2015, the current allowance is now DKK 4,000 or about P28,320++ ($602.55)*.

We listed the costs of typical requirements for an au pair applicant and compared these to the amount of the au pair allowance and what Gloria and Janet charge as research fees.

A schedule of the documentation and processing costs follows:

One-month Salary

 Amount in pesos

One month au pair allowance

28,320.00

 

 

Documentation

 

Passport: Regular Processing

950.00

NBI Clearance

415.00

Birth certificate

140

 

 

Processing Fees

 

Visa

11,625.00

POEA ($100 or its equivalent)

4,701.00

Total

P46,151.00

Based on the guidelines outlining recruitment, recruitment fees for au pairs should not exceed P46,151 – not that far off from the P50,000 Janet charges, but that covers only her fees. Other incidentals like documentation and processing fees need to be shouldered by the au pair. Coursing an application through Janet would bring the total out of pocket expenses to P67,831.

The Supreme Court, in a 2008 ruling, also said that Illegal recruitment is done on a large-scale basis if it is “committed against three or more persons individually or as a group.” Gloria and Janet have demanded and received payment from almost 300 au pairs.

Who’s accountable?

The Migrant Worker Act was amended in 2010 and exempted domestic workers and seafarers from paying placement fees.

Given this, should prospective au pairs also be exempt from paying placement fees? Local immigration officials say that adding things up is not that simple.

For one, the au pair program is a cultural exchange, it is not classified as work and neither is it a student program – it is a bit of both, experts say. Additionally, prospective applicants can directly find a host family themselves without having to pay a middleman.

Hans Cacdac, administrator of POEA said, however, it is wrong for au pairs to pay placement fees.

“Technically it is not an employment program but if it is treated as employment and the charges are not justified, why are the workers being charged?” he said in July. He added that illegal recruiters can be charged with human trafficking because they subject the au pairs to debt bondage.

“They will ask for money – P80,000, like you said. The applicants wouldn’t be able to get that amount of money easily, they will have to borrow that from someone else. To be able to cancel that debt, the au pairs would be forced to work,” he explained.

 “That’s abuse or exploitation. If you look at the law on human trafficking, it’s stated there that debt bondage is one of the means of abuse,” he added.






Under the amended Migrant Worker Act, should prospective au pairs be exempt from paying placement fees? It’s not that simple, officials say.


 

“From what we’ve seen, the au pairs who came here already indebted (from recruitment fees) are more financially dependent on their allowance, and that adds extra pressure on them to make the relationship with their host family work,” said Andreas Riis last July. He is Caritas Denmark au pair coordinator. Caritas Denmark is one of the 3 agencies within the Au Pair Network that provides care and counselling to au pairs.

‘Au pair mama’ 

Sigrid, a filmmaker, has had 4 au pairs – all Filipino.

“My sister has always had Filipino au pairs and I always found the girls to be so sweet, always smiling and very respectful. When I decided to get an au pair to live with my family, I never even considered another nationality,” Sigrid said in an interview last May.

Sigrid had au pairs from 2005 to 2014 – overlapping with the years when the Philippines declared a unilateral ban on the au pair program from 1998 to 2010.

Her first au pair was referred by another Filipino woman, a former au pair herself who has now settled in Denmark and is loosely referred to as the “au pair mama”. When Danish moms need an au pair, they go to her.

The au pair mama asked Sigrid to hand over the equivalent of about P12,000 as a bribe for airport officials, but Sigrid was caught completely off guard when we told her out about the ban.

“I would have never gotten an au pair if I knew that there was a ban!”

Sigrid has had a mix of experiences with her Filipino au pairs. “Some were just fantastic. We were both crying when their contract ended, but for the others, it just didn’t work out as well.”

Having traveled to the Philippines herself, Sigrid was supportive of the cultural exchange aspect of the program and saw its potential to allow the girls to “move up with an education.”

The problems, Sigrid noticed, came with the immense expectation to send money back to the Philippines regularly.

“Some girls kept some (money) for themselves, they went to Danish language classes and travelled. But some would leave nothing for themselves – they were not so interested in learning about Danish culture and only wanted to work. That’s when it kind of took on a kind of labor feel.”

“But one thing about all of them was that they never wanted to go back to the Philippines. That is such a pity, they would have much to contribute to the country after having lived abroad.” – Rappler.com

$1 = P47

This story is a collaboration between the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Rappler.