The ‘Underbelly’ of the Au Pair Life
By Emily Cook
Imagine a job where you can travel the world, be introduced to new cultures, meet new families, and get paid for doing so. Sounds like the dream, right?
Photograph supplied by Sorcha Kuhlman, an Australian au pair
Being an au pair seems like the glamourous lifestyle we all aim to have, and popularity of this occupation is increasingly growing in Australia with interest apparently having doubled since 2011, according to the ICEF (International Consultants for Education and Fairs) Monitor.
Graph representing the percentage of origins of registered au pairs in 2012, statistics obtained from Au Pair World: https://www.aupairworld.com/inc/images/press/Facts%20and%20Figures%20%E2%80%93%20Au%20pairing%20at%20Aupair%20World.pdf
However, some Au Pairs do not experience this lavish lifestyle, rather having to deal with abusive fathers, alcoholic mothers, minimal pay, and a hectic schedule, to name a few challenges.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to the majority,” Australian resident and registered au pair, Nikola van Arendonk, said.
“I was kind of thrown into the situation, I literally had no experience with a baby, nor was she part of the contract but I was just given a 1 month old on my 2nd week, it was scary.”
She said the situation started out well, but eventually, cracks started to show.
“I was entitled to two days off per week… apparently not because I was working every day. Every day without fail,” she said.
Nikola had been an au pair for 12 months and went through three families, and she did not have to think hard about all the challenges she went through. She spoke of one family she worked with, and the troubles she had with the inappropriate father.
“It was the most uncomfortable situation that I’ve ever had and I quit the next week… I got out of that quick,” she said.
“It crossed the moral line.”
Au Pairs are usually young people and their purpose is to learn the language and culture of their host family, as well as look after their children and compete light house work.
According to Au Pair Australia in January 2017, the au pairs should be paid equal to or greater than $180AUD per week. Nikola van Arendonk claims her host family were paying her way under this limit for seven days of work.
“I was paid 15 Euro a week for seven days straight,” she said, this amount approximately equalling $24AUD. Nikola did receive board and Internet, however believes her pay should have been higher due to the 12-hour days she was completing.
23-year-old Rin Yangzom found herself with a host family in Switzerland paying approximately $300AUD per week for her work, however, it wasn’t the money that turned her au pair experience sour.
Photograph supplied from Rin Yangzom during her travels as an au pair.
“I don’t think I felt unsafe, I just wasn’t comfortable with how the parents were dealing with, or I should say weren’t dealing with the issues they clearly had,” she said.
“I pretty much filled in for the position of mum all the while I wasn’t getting paid any more and I was no longer getting days off.”
After trying to contact the au pair organisation she went through to explain her problem, she said they replied in a vague email, telling her “not to be nosy and take my days off while being fair to the needs of the family.”
“I guess I just feel that based on the intimate nature of an au pair’s experience there are always going to be hurdles,” she said. “But the agencies are supposed to be there to support us not just in the business side of things but emotionally too.
“I was just a kid looking for, what I thought was, a unique travel experience and they sort of sold me off and didn’t check back.”
Not all au pairs go through organisations to find a host family, and vice versa. Advertisements and Facebook groups also allow au pairs and host families to interact with one another and offer their services.
23-year-old Hannah-Elisabeth Anderson from Denmark is in an au pair group on Facebook where you can talk to other people doing au pair work and try to connect with host families. Hannah-Elisabeth did au pair work in Australia and said she enjoyed her time very much.
“It was hard at first but I really like working with kids and enjoyed the cultural exchanges,” she said.
She was one of the lucky ones with her au pair experience, having never had “experienced anything bad” with the two families, one in Sydney and the other in Manilla.
“I thought it was pretty hard that I was in a family and I knew that I had to leave them again.”
For Sorcha Kulhman, however, her experience was not as great and it was the advertisement option that should have been the first warning sign. Aged 22, the student was travelling in Europe where she decided to become an au pair for extra money while in Paris, France.
Photograph supplied by Sorcha Kulhman in Paris, France.
“I should’ve known something wasn’t right because they didn’t look into my background or anything,” she said.
“There was just an ‘induction’ fee of about $200 and they scanned my passport and asked a couple of questions about my nannying experience. And that was it. It was weird.”
However, the warning signs didn’t stop there, and as time went on, Sorchen’s situation got so bad she eventually left the family.
“You have to look out for yourself and I wasn’t comfortable there anymore,” she said.
The family’s father began to act inappropriately around Sorchen, and sometimes while he was highly intoxicated.
She said: “He tried to hit on me when he came home late drunk at night once and I was in the shower and he came in to brush his teeth and just stared at me and I was freaking out.
“It kind of escalated to a point where I had to leave eventually because it got more and more frequent and I started responding and I started getting aggressive and he just wasn’t getting the hint that I wasn’t interested and it was very awkward.”
Unfortunately, experiences like this are not uncommon within the au pair occupation. And while the organisations are great in giving each participant a host family to work with, it is said that they are not reliable in responding to complaints and serious situations.
Sorcha said: “I definitely think that organisations should have a duty to investigate claims like mine… they could be placing young people in very hostile, very personal situations and not everyone is going to just leave like I did.”
Australian au pair organisations were contacted for comment, however there was no response.