Au pairs: Different lists, one destination

MANILA, Philippines – There is a Facebook page that contained an angry message – “Patayin si Berny Qubing (Kill Berny Qubing).”

The FB page contained posts against Berny Qubing, the owner of the Yes au pair agency.  The latest status, which was posted in October 2012 reads: “Ang laki ng training fee nmin at ung cashbond! Ngayon, sasabihin nyo sa amin n hndi nyo alm kung saan kukunin ung cashbond?? Sir BERNIE QUBING!! Mahiya ka naman, ung pinangdadate mo sa gf mo galing sa pera ng mga magulang nmin, hndi k b natatakot sa KARMA??"

Yes Au Pair sent Filipinas to the Netherlands from 2010-2012 to take part in the au pair program, a cultural exchange scheme which gives Filipinos aged 18-30 the chance to experience life in Holland. They're given an allowance of €300-€350 a month (P15,000-P18,000 or $319-$383)* by their host families. In exchange, they perform light domestic work for not more than 8 hours per day, for a maximum of 30 hours a week.

The agency asked for a training fee of P40,000 and a cash bond of P60,000 (€1,400 at the time or $1,554*). Qubing promised to return the cash bond after the au pairs finished their one-year contract in the Netherlands. He never did.

What made the case of Yes Au Pair alarming, however, was that it was a member of the Branch Oganisatie Nederlandse Au Pair Agentschappen or BONAPA. Being a member of BONAPA was supposed to assure prospective au pairs that they will be dealing with a trustworthy agency, one that maintains the professionalism of the au pair industry.

It wasn’t legally registered with the POEA, however, even if it did its recruitment operations in the Philippines. This peculiar setup was a red flag for unscrupulous operations. In 2013, Yes Au Pair agency was probed by the Philippine and Dutch governments for swindling au pairs.

Years after Yes Au Pair was closed for scamming Filipinas, however, a similar arrangement still exists – au pair agencies are accredited abroad but are not necessarily registered with the POEA, especially if they do not have physical offices here.

Those who want to be au pairs must then check rigorously not just with POEA, but with other accrediting bodies to make sure they do not end up being scammed by another Yes Au Pair agency.

Debt bondage

Qubing, according to the Dutch news site de Stentor, has brought 109 au pairs to the Netherlands, most of them Filipinas. One of them was Gina, a Filipina au pair from the Southern Philippines.  

Gina (not her real name) heard about the Yes Au Pair when it conducted training in her hometown. “I was a nursing graduate and that time nagvo-volunteer lang ako (I just volunteered) while taking my exams. Then nalaman ko about au pairing (Then I learned about how to be an au pair). I grabbed the chance even if di ko alam ano ang mangyayari sa kin dito sa Netherlands, (I didn't know what would happen to me here in the Netherlands),” she said.

Au pair agencies are accredited abroad but are not necessarily registered with the POEA, especially if they do not have physical offices in the Philippines.

 

Gina borrowed from her parents the P100,000 she paid Yes Au Pair. She packed her bags and then went to Cebu, where Yes Au Pair held office. This is where she underwent the training, which consists of learning how it is to bike and swim, as well as how to speak Dutch.

She left for the Netherlands in 2011. Aside from the P100,000 she paid to Qubing, she also paid an additional P5,000 to immigration personnel at the airport who “escorted” her so she could leave despite the ban imposed by the Philippines on sending au pairs to some European countries, the Netherlands included.

A year after, she asked for her money back from the agency so she could go to Denmark. She never got it. During that time, Yes Au Pair’s failure to return the cash bond already hit the news in Holland.

“Some au pairs nung nag-confess sila in front of the reporter, nakakaawa kasi hiniram pa nila ang pera sa lending company para lang makapunta dito or ibenenta ang lupa ng magulang. The au pair allowance is not that much – it is only P25,000-P30,000 Philippine money [in 2012] if converted. So nakakaawa lang kasi minsan mahihirapan ang au pair mag-cover ng utang ng pamilya nila,” Gina said.

Hans Cacdac, the administrator of the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), said in July that this results in debt bondage and is a form of human trafficking.

Good record in Netherlands, no record in PH

Gina and other au pairs who were victimized alerted BONAPA about it and filed a case against Yes Au Pair. “We even have a lawyer to fight for the case pero yung last naalala ko, sabi sa letter ng lawyer if manalo kami wala na talagang perang makukuha (but the last I recall, the lawyer said in his letter that we would be unable to get any money) because he already filed for bankruptcy.”

Yes Au Pair filed for bankruptcy in October 2012. The Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), meanwhile, issued a warning to the public that Yes Au Pair is not a registered recruitment agency.

The case of Yes Au Pair was tricky, however – it was a member of BONAPA and is an agency operating legally in the Netherlands. Yet it was not a registered recruitment agency in the Philippines.  

Cacdac said that the accreditation of au pair agencies mainly rests with the receiving country. “The au pair program is not an employment modality. Thus it was decided that it should fall under the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO). In cases where agencies are required, the countries where au pairs go to have laws for accrediting them.”

The status of a recruitment agency is critical for au pairs going to the Netherlands, however, unlike Denmark and Norway, which do not require agencies to sponsor them. The Netherlands mandates host families to get au pairs through officially recognized au pair agencies.

Under the Modern Migration law (MoMi), which took effect in 2013, it is the sponsor agencies that should apply for a residence permit in behalf of the au pairs.  

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (or IND in Dutch), the government organization that processes visas and screens the admission of foreigners to Holland, approves the operations of sponsor agencies. It also monitors the compliance of agencies with the MoMi law.

Au pairs must then check with the IND for recognized agencies or sponsors. Here’s the list.  

But these agencies are not necessarily registered under POEA, especially since they do not hold offices here. Happy Au Pair agency for one, is owned by a Filipina and her Dutch husband, has the approval of the IND, and holds seminars in the Philippines from time to time. But it is not a registered recruitment agency under POEA.

“In my agency, all candidates get a free one-day orientation (me and my husband go to the Philippines once or twice a year to conduct this seminar/orientation in Olongapo City) from us before they could decide if they really want to come here to the Netherlands to be part of the au pair program,” Zita van Beusekom-Casela, co-owner of Happy Au Pair agency* in the Netherlands, said.

The prospective au pairs must then check both with the POEA and the IND. If one looks at the POEA’s list of licensed agencies, however, there are no agencies that include the term “au pair” in their names.

The au pair must unpack layers of verification to determine whether an au pair agency is operating legally or not.

CFO said this is because even travel agencies could recruit au pairs – and in this case, they may not be registered under the POEA. The au pair must then check if they have a business permit.

“Please note that the CFO does not accredit au pair agencies in the Philippines. Filipinos can be an au pair for free. However, there are recruitment agencies who offer services to au pairs. Those agencies are being accredited by the POEA. If it is a travel agency, it should have a business permit to operate,” Jennifer Mareposque, CFO emigrant services officer said.  

New rules

“The case was handled by the Philippine government thru Inter-agency Council Against Trafficking where CFO is a member, the Dutch government's public prosecutor, Au Pair Project leader, and the Ministry of Justice,” Ivy Miravelles, officer-in-charge of the Migration Integration and Education Division of CFO said. “It led to several changes in the program in various receiving countries.”

In the Netherlands, the rules were changed, following the Yes Au Pair agency controversy.

Au pairs have been prohibited from paying any deposit. They must also not pay more that €34,00 (P1,500) for coming to the Netherlands. The payment corresponds to the registration fee in au pair agencies.

IND also bans agencies found to have violated the law. Yes Au Pair, for one, had been blacklisted.  

Beusekom-Casela said au pairs must strive to learn all that they can about their rights as au pairs, the laws in the Netherlands, and their options for help.

“As an agent in the Netherlands, what I can advice to au pairs to Philippines (or other nations) is to learn and practice their rights. The Netherlands embassy in Makati is always giving a flyer to au pairs about the MoMi law and this is not just a flyer, it is their future in the Netherlands as au pair, so they should take it seriously.”

The CFO also conducts the Country Familiarization Seminar (CFS), an orientation program where au pairs are taught about the host country's culture and policies, contract obligations, au pair rights, health, sex education and safety, and developing negotiation skills.

“We also connect them with possible support networks or support groups in the host countries, and encourage au pair participants to engage activities that could help ease their integration. Enrollment in language courses (part of the contract) is also stressed in the CFS.

Several online services of the CFO are also introduced to the au pairs in the CFS. These services can be their means of reporting their situation in the host country and can be the source of legal aid/advice and more recently for counseling services online:

"Filipino au pairs are also instructed to report the violation of the host families so the latter can be included in the watch list of the Philippine embassy (posts) and the CFO data base,” Miravelles said.

The au pair must unpack layers of verification to determine whether an au pair agency is operating legally or not, however.

The IND has a list and so does the POEA. There are those who only have business permits but are also sending au pairs abroad. The rules have been made tighter, but knowing the truth about which entities really protect au pairs continues to be a challenge. – Rappler.com

Photos by Jay Directo and Noel Celis, AFP

Note: Happy Au pair agency, which is owned by a Filipina and her Dutch husband is one of the agencies approved by the IND. They hold seminars in the Philippines from time to time. Happy Au Pair agency has no legal personality in the Philippines, especially since it does not hold offices here. Au pair applicants would not also be able look them up on the POEA because technically speaking, au pair agencies are also not considered as “recruitment agencies” as the au pair program is a cultural exchange scheme, not a vehicle for employment. What they do is only refer au pair applicants to host families. In this regard, the POEA has no jurisdiction over them, but the line gets blurred when some recruitment agencies duly registered under POEA engage au pair applicants.

 

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