A landmark research study by UTS and Macquarie University has found the majority of au pairs who work in Australia are paid as babysitters but work like housekeepers.
Most au pairs come to Australia looking for a traditional ‘cultural exchange’; an immersive experience with a host family where they provide childcare and light housework in return for room, board and ‘pocket money’.
But 60 percent find themselves working for around 36 hours a week, doing not only childcare but daily cooking, cleaning and other household tasks.
Cultural Exchange or Cheap Housekeeper? by UTS Law academic, Laurie Berg, and Macquarie University Sociology professor, Gabrielle Meagher is the most extensive and detailed survey of its kind to date and draws on responses from almost 1500 au pairs in all states and territories.
Laurie Berg says the report presents a much-needed national picture of au pairs’ working conditions.
“We don’t have an au pair program in this country so, up until now, we have had no concrete information on the day-to-day experiences of au pairs in Australian homes.”
“The demand for au pairing is often explained by Australian families’ need for affordable childcare but the study indicates many families are taking advantage of the large supply of working holiday makers to obtain cheap housekeeping services as well.”
Nina, a 22-year-old German woman, told SBS German, “Families either see the au pair as a cheap worker or a part of their family, no in-between really. My first family was really nice. However, I was only paid $130 a week for 35 hours of work.”
Gabrielle Meagher says the findings suggest there can be stark power imbalances between au pairs and families which leave au pairs highly vulnerable.
“More than a third of au pairs who were asked to leave early were given one day to leave. One in six felt forced to stay in a difficult placement because they lacked alternative accommodation.”
Lina from Malaysia au paired in both Melbourne and regional Western Australia and told the researchers that while she had a good experience in Western Australia, she felt she was exploited while working in Melbourne. She was underpaid and used as a maid rather than as an au pair. Lina said she chose to leave and then was maligned by the host family on the Au Pair Host Facebook site.
The demand for au pairing is often explained by Australian families’ need for affordable childcare but the study indicates many families are taking advantage of the large supply of working holiday makers to obtain cheap housekeeping services as well
The report also calls into question the protective function of au pair agencies which place young people with host families. These agencies promote au pairing as a cultural experience but they don’t appear to guarantee it.
Significantly, au pairs who used an agency to arrange their placement fared no better than others in relation to working hours, rates of pay or inclusion in family activities.
Laurie says this hidden workforce is falling through the cracks when it comes to clear regulation and enforcement of their rights.
“There is confusion among au pairs and families about acceptable minimum standards because different government agencies take different approaches. For example, immigration rules consider au pairs to be workers but advice from the Fair Work Ombudsman and ATO is less clear about exactly when au pairs become employees”.
Gabrielle Meagher says more detailed official guidance is needed on the rights of the thousands of young foreign women working in Australian homes.
“Families need to understand that along with the convenience and affordability of in-home care come full responsibilities as employers. The Federal Government in turn should support families and au pairs to help them understand these complex rules.”