Abroad, without a paddle: How Australian Au Pairs are being exploited.
By Pema Bakshi
While the Au Pair industry is booming and more and more young Australians are opting to explore it as an alternative way of travel, incidents of harassment, neglect and abuse are only too common. With little support and protection provided, au pairs all around the world are being exploited with no one to turn to.
There was not a lot of comfort in surrendering just $200AUD to an Au Pair organisation in a back alley in Western Paris for Sorcha Kuhlman. A simple scan of her passport and a couple of questions about her childcare experience and membership was sorted.
“They didn’t look into my background or anything…they didn’t ask for a policecheck,” explains the UNSW student.
Sorcha, who grew up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches was just nineteen when she sought a way to extend her travels around a country she loved, “I was low on money and I was just desperate for a job but it was all pretty weird considering I would be looking after kids,” she explains. With her years of Nanning experience, friends told her to give Au Pairing a go but she could have never thought that it would become a living nightmare.
Currently, Europe hosts a staggering majority of these “cultural exchange experiences” according to Aupairworld.com, with most host families expecting that their Au Pair speak the native language fluently. For Sorcha, the situation was exhausting from the start. Taking care of not only a child and infan
t but also a mother whose back injury rendered her immobile for most of the six months that she spent there.
Reflecting on her duties, she digresses, “It was hard because I was taking care of her as well as the kids, helping her with breast pumping and cooking her food and bringing her medication.”
The real issues however, lay with the family’s father who was instantly cold to the Au Pair.
“He was really distant at first…he didn’t speak to me directly…he would just be dismissive and complain about silly things like the dinners I would make and what the kids were learning from me,” she tells.
On her worst experience she reveals, “He tried to hit on me when he came home late, drunk at night while I was in the shower…I was freaking out and I tried not to wake up the kids so I just got out and walked passed him. I just shrugged it off as him being drunk.”
It wasn’t tobe the last uncomfortable encounter.
“It escalated to a point where I had to leave because it became more and more frequent and I started getting aggressive but he just wasn’t getting the hint.”
“I eventually told [his wife], because one night he tried to hop in my bed but she didn’t say anything, she just said that he was lonely. She said not to get angry with him because he had temper issues and I was just shocked. It was weird that he was treated as the victim in all of it.”
What made her finally leave the situation was an incident that wound up being the final straw.
“He tried to touch me inappropriately in front of Mathieu, the eldest child.”
“I just packed my bags and said goodbye to the kids. [The mother] was far more mobile at this point so I didn’t feel bad.
You have to look after yourself and I wasn’t comfortable there anymore.”
It was when Sorcha tried to contact the organisation as a warning to not replace her that she was met with cruel disregard.
“They didn’t respond to any of my emails…when I finally got a hold of them and explained what happened, they just said thanks for letting us know and didn’t say they were going to investigate or check up with the family. I waited for follow up phone calls but there was nothing and when I called months later the line has been disconnected.”
In such an unregulated industry, stories like Sorcha’s are not uncommon. The exploitation of these workers is primarily due to their wages.
Rin Yangzom, a 23 year-old Sydney sider thought that au pairing would be a joyous time.
“I figured it would be a more immersive way to travel,” she says.
In her four years of being an Au Pair, the student has been hosted by four families, which she explains is a relatively low amount compared to other Au Pairs she’s met.
Her longest and most disturbing gig was a family of three kids in Switzerland. Rin, whose family is Swiss clarifies that the compensation was unrealistic but sizeable compared to the industry average.
“Well the host family is providing you with food and board and then for your service they’re also supposed to provide some kind of ‘pocket money’. I was getting probably the Australian equivalent of $300 per week, it wasn’t really much especially because Switzerland is so expensive but I found out that it was a fair bit more than what some other people were getting when I travelled around.”
On why she ended up leaving she divulges, “there were just some family issues that I felt like I was in the middle of.”
The issues only began around halfway through Rin’s yearlong stint, after the mother, Linda, lost her part time job.
“After she was let go she spent most of her time at home but in her room, that’s when my workload increased and days off even became a rarity.”
To Rin, it was fairly evident that Linda was struggling with an alcohol addiction. While the father of the children was a nice guy, he was overwhelmed and worked a lot so problems went undealt with in the home.
“Everything was obvious but getting swept under the rug and we had to act like nothing was going on instead of actually dealing with the problem.”
“It wasn’t right for the kids to watch their mum sleep all day and only come out of her room at dinner to grab some more wine and maybe pay them a ‘hello’. I pretty much filled in for the position of mum all the while I wasn’t getting paid anymore.”
On whether she believes that Au Pairs are paid a fair wage, she exclaims, “I was barely gettingby and it only didn’t escalate to a debilitating issue because I stoppedgetting days off to actually spend the money anyway.
There were also times when I would buy bits of groceries or even medicine for the kids here and there with my own money. If I didn’t go into au pairing without decent savings then I would’ve been screwed.”
Rin and Sorcha’s experiences are harrowing but not uncommon according to them. In such a potentially perilous industry, au pairing without an agency seems too risky. Yet agencies provide an obsolete amount of support as it stands and there is little to no job security with or without membership.
In Australia, agencies do not even have to legally run a police check on their Au Pairs.
Feeling failed by her agency Rin states, “there are always going to be hurdles but the agencies are supposed to be there to support us not just on 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 never checked back.”