migrant workers

Au pairs grieving in a foreign family’s home

Abdus Somad, Sonya Andomo, Asmariyana

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Au pairs grieving in a foreign family’s home


Indonesian au pairs in Europe face exploitative conditions, including low wages, long hours, and maltreatment. The Philippines is also the country that sends the most number of au pairs to the Netherlands.

Editor’s Note: Indonesians, including those from other Asian countries such as the Philippines, are trapped in exploitative transactions – starting from working without living wages to working very long hours while participating in au pair programs in European countries. They also have to endure insults and violence. If lucky, an au pair will get language courses in the destination country, transportation facilities, and tuition fees. This story was produced with the support of Journalism Fund, and in collaboration with Dutch media, OneWorld.nl. Rappler is publishing the English version.

Suri, 26, arrived in the Netherlands via Amsterdam Schiphol Airport at the end of September 2022. At that time, it was already autumn. The weather was cool and it was considered the best time for travelers. But not for Suri.

Originally from Temanggung, Central Java, she immediately felt cold. The thin jacket and jeans she wore from Indonesia were unable to ward off the cool air of September. Her body gradually ached. Even her head was heavy after flying across different time zones. Meanwhile, outside the airport, the pick-up car promised by her adoptive family in the Netherlands never arrived.

“I was waiting for almost 10 hours at the airport without wearing warm enough clothes,” said Suri remembering the event from a year ago.

When she arrived home she was given a jacket. Not a new jacket, but a musty one that belonged to the previous au pair. “I was the fifth person to become an au pair there. Three of them were Filipinos and two of them were Indonesians, including me,” she said.

After graduating from a state university in Yogyakarta, she flew to the Netherlands via a cultural exchange program known as au pair. She registered through aupairworld.com, a site that bridges Europeans’ need for migrant workers such as nannies and housekeepers – under the guise of cultural exchange. House families are charged around 40 euros per month to become members of aupairworld.com.

Four months later, she found a Moroccan host family after three long distance interviews. During the interview, there was no talk about Suri having to clean the house, but it was different after she arrived. “I clean the house and look after three children, even though there is no such thing in the contract,” she said.

Suri experienced harsh treatment from her adoptive family. She was even imprisoned at home by her host family. “I wasn’t given a house key, even when I was on holiday. They said that I wasn’t allowed to leave the house.”

This condition got worse because while Suri was at home she often slept hungry. “I work from 12 pm to 6 pm as a babysitter. During that time I couldn’t eat. I could only eat at dinner. Sometimes when I was late, there was no food left,” she said.

Suri did not remain silent about the treatment she got from her host family. She protested and reported this to her agency. But they didn’t help much other than suggest that she look for another host family.

Suri is not the only au pair from Indonesia who claims to have been mistreated in the Netherlands. Sofia, not her real name, also received similar treatment while living with her adoptive family in Den Haag. “I am not fluent in English. However, because one of the host families was Indonesian, I accepted the offer to become an au pair there,” she said.

Even so, during the six months of work she was never given pocket money by her host family, even though she did a lot of things, from washing cars, cleaning house, to looking after two elderly people.

Sofia spent no less than 14 hours to complete all her work. “Now the only family for me is this family. I have been abandoned by my parents for a long time. Even though I’m depressed, I have to do it,” she whispered.

Once it crossed her mind to run away from home, but she couldn’t. “The train access card is directly connected to the host mother. So she can track me. Whenever they know my location, they would pick me up immediately,” she said.

Finally, with Suri’s help, Sofia was successfully picked up by the agency. “It’s a deep feeling of trauma and pain,” she said, not wanting to say more in the interview.

Meanwhile, one of the house family members we met in the Netherlands, Hilde Bos (not her real na, revealed that attitude issues are the main factor that influences the length of time that an au pair stays at her residence.

“Having balance is quite tricky when there is someone at home. Some of them have to follow the rules that apply at home, even if I don’t order them. So, this is really a matter of compatibility,” Hilde said on September 22, 2023.

She admitted that she had a bad experience with an au pair. When she had to take care of three children, one of the au pairs mostly sat on the sofa holding her cell phone, while she had told her children not to look at screens before 5:30 Dutch time. “She came with a lot of serious problems, such as being bullied all her life. That won’t work, so it’s not what we’re looking for,” Hilde said.

Since 2016, at least five au pairs from various countries have worked at Hilde’s house. Starting from Indonesians, Argentines, Italians, Brazilians, and currently from the Czech Republic. Hilde’s family spends at least 340 euros per month, including food and accommodations. “We gave an extra 25 euros for fun things,” she added.

Steep road for Indonesian au pair protection

Suri and Sofia are only part of other stories of young Indonesians who participated in cultural exchange or au pair programs in Europe, America, Japan, and Australia.

On the aupairworld.com page, 26,267 Indonesians applied to become au pairs, while around 81 Indonesian citizens are registered as au pairs. The number of au pairs who go abroad could not be confirmed.

Since June 2023, there have been at least 30 more au pairs that we have contacted. From them we got various stories, both happy and sad, when living in foreigners’ homes in Europe. Language, work, and wages are the reasons they cited for wanting to become au pairs.

They register via the two most popular sites – aupairworld.com and aupair.com. Apart from being popular in Indonesia, the au pair program is also often targeted by people from Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines, as well as those from South Africa and America.

Based on data published on the Dutch Immigratie en-Naturalisatiedienst Ministerie van Justitie en Veiligheid (IND) page, the country that sends the most au pairs is the Philippines. The number of Filipinos who became au pairs in the Netherlands alone reached 2,430 from 2018-2022. They are followed by South Africa with 1760, and Brazil with around 710. Meanwhile, Thailand and Indonesia contributed 290 and 230, respectively.

Of that number, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recorded only 338 citizens who became au pairs in Europe from 2018 to 2023. Some au pairs were subjected to forced labor and experienced verbal violence and unpaid wages. There were cases of suicide reported.

“All cases reported occurred in Europe,” explained Director of Indonesian Citizen Protection, Judha Nugraha, in an interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last November 30, 2023.

“That is only the number of those who actively report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while the data for those who are not active, I think will be much bigger. This case is always systemic. For example, there were 752 cases of human trafficking last year. However, we believe the actual figure is much higher. So, there are many factors that make someone not report their case while abroad,” he added.

This is because there are no specific regulations in Indonesia and other countries governing cultural exchange programs, including defining au pair activities. “An au pair aims to learn the language and culture of the host country. The host family is referred to as family members, so there are no terms ‘workers’ and ‘employees’ there,” he explained.

However, in practice, according to Judha, au pairs adopt a work system similar to migrant workers. Therefore, they should also have the right to receive migrant worker protection in accordance with international law.

“When you enter a household, work hours, and get wages, you are already a domestic worker. They have the right to receive protection as migrant workers in accordance with the 1998 UN intervention concerning the protection of migrant workers,” he said.

However, he added, there have been no recorded migrant workers placed in European countries. This is because the conditions for the country placing Indonesian migrant workers include having laws covering them, job guarantees, and having an MoU or memorandum of understanding between the sending and receiving countries.

Meanwhile, the au pair program that has been running so far has never involved Indonesia. This means that the cultural exchange program is only created and agreed upon by the destination countries without involving the au pair‘s country of origin. “So, there is an unsafe migration pattern. When there is a case, who will handle it?” he asked.

In fact, Article 1 of Law Number 18 of 2017, states that an Indonesian migrant worker is one who will, is, or has done work, and received wages outside the territory of the Republic of Indonesia. “We need a national decision to categorize au pairs. If not, it will cause problems later,” explained Judha.

If an au pair is categorized as a migrant worker in the domestic sector, then the one who makes the departure arrangements is the Indonesian migrant worker placement company under the Ministry of Manpower, not the agency or online registration via the aupairworld.com and aupair.com sites.

“A good regulatory flow is needed if the au pair is included in the migrant worker category,” Judha said.

The Director General of Culture, Hilmar Farid, does not know about au pair activities. “I don’t know about au pairs. That’s a specific question. We’ll just go to the public relations department to explain the data,” said Hilmar when we met in his office last November 27, 2023.

The head of the Cooperation and Public Relations Bureau of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology, Anang Ristanto, has not yet provided an answer. Even the chairman of the Migrant Worker Protection Agency, Benny Rhamdani and the Minister of Manpower, Ida Fauziyah, did not respond even though they were contacted by telephone and were sent letters.

We contacted aupair.com and aupairworld.com, but to date the company has not responded. The team has sent electronic letters via email and contacted them by telephone, but they have not responded.

Currently the definition of an au pair is being reviewed by the United States government. The US Department of State requested that the status of au pairs be clarified and updated.

“There needs to be some updates, such as increasing the weekly allowance to au pairs. Since 2009, their pocket money has never been increased,” said one agency quoted by Washingtonpost.com on December 14, 2023.

The vice president of the largest agency in the US, the Senior Cultural Care Au Pair, Natalie Jordan, is pushing for changing cultural exchange into a workforce program because au pairs are transactional. “It’s transactional, it’s all about a really unnatural way of interacting with host family members,” she said.

The proposal also discusses increasing program costs, reducing working hours, and requiring each host family to do more reporting about their respective au pairs. “From the initial 45 hours, to 10 hours per week,” she added. Even so, the proposal still has pros and cons. Meanwhile, the US State Department said it would consider all comments before determining policy.

Meanwhile, the coordinator of the Indonesia Cultural Mediators Fairwork in the Netherlands, Wati Darwisyah, emphasized that the difference between au pairs and other migrant workers is the visa called “au pair.” This visa is obtained from agencies under the International Naturalization Deutsche (IND), an agency that deals with foreigners in the Netherlands. “Even though they carry out almost the same activities as migrant workers,” she pointed out.

In the Netherlands itself, the au pairs are allowed to do only 30 hours of work, babysitting, or light household tasks, however the rule in place does not always work to protect au pairs.

According to Wati’s records, throughout 2023 there were at least four au pairs who complained to her. The most frequently reported cases related to working hours, pocket money problems, and acts of violence. She believes that the au pair problem in European countries is like an “iceberg phenomenon in the middle of the sea.” There are quite a few au pairs who cannot report because they are prevented or threatened by the house owner.

“Because basically, when someone experiences exploitation, they need time and courage to then seek help,” she said when interviewed last December 23, 2023 in Jakarta.

Given this, Wati urged the government of the au pair‘s country of origin, such as Indonesia, to immediately craft regulations. This is because the regulations in the destination country do not apply to protect au pairs from Indonesia. As a result, all acts of violence and exploitation will not be dealt with properly.

For Wati, being an au pair is an alternative way because there are no domestic job vacancies with low wages in Europe. Under the guise of cultural exchange, people are lured to Europe as au pairs, but they end up helping with housework or looking after babies, especially for parents who both work.

“This is a new style of slavery. There are no clear regulations, so the spirit of au pairs is not the spirit of cultural exchange,” she concluded. – with research support from Sarah Haaij/Rappler.com

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