All in the family: national survey highlights need for regulation to protect au pairs

Most people don’t like to think Australians have ‘foreign maids’, according to Faculty of Law senior lecturer, Laurie Berg, but when it comes to the au pairing undertaken by thousands of young travellers each year, the reality is there is tremendous scope for exploitative working conditions.

While the vast majority enjoy their experience in Australia and would recommend au pairing to others, they are routinely paid less than the minimum wage, according to a national survey, conducted by Laurie and Professor Gabrielle Meagher from Macquarie University.

Au pairs are also expected to work longer hours than agreed at short notice and to do tasks well beyond the childcare and light housework traditionally associated with au pairing, including gardening and pet care.

The findings—published in Cultural Exchange or Cheap Housekeeper?—are the first comprehensive study of au pairing in Australia, and describe conditions experienced by the young travellers who take up childcare and housework duties for families around the country.

“Our findings suggest that au pairs, who are generally young European women on Working Holiday visas, are being taken advantage of, and that current regulatory structures are failing them,” says Laurie.

The report concludes that the day-to-day duties described by survey participants constitute employment under the Fair Work Act, but there is a common misconception on behalf of both au pairs and the families they assist that what au pairs are doing isn’t actually ‘work’ but rather a form of cultural exchange.

There are also cultural stereotypes at play, with the failure to recognise domestic duties as worthy of remuneration being a major issue. Explains Laurie: “There’s a young woman in your home and just like other women since time immemorial there’s an assumption that she should just do the work, whatever it is. The phrase ‘member of the family’ can justify all sorts of evils.”

All this uncertainty—‘au pair’ has no legal definition in Australia—means there is little recourse if things go wrong. The Fair Work Ombudsman, the national labour watchdog, is ill-equipped to deal with disputes when the workplace is a family home.

In extreme cases this results in out-and-out exploitation—one research participant reported being left alone with an 18-month-old for two weeks while the parents went on holiday, others were expected to ‘wash cars’, ‘paint fences’ or ‘work for my host mom’s business’.

“Finding affordable and flexible childcare places has become increasingly difficulty, Australian families are stretched. Getting an au pair is seen as a solution. However, most au pairs are not properly remunerated or given adequate notice and pay for overtime”, says Laurie.

“Guidance for families around conditions, pay and tax, could go a long way to protecting au pairs and help clarify expectations for everyone.”

More research needs to be done, according to Laurie, but she hopes that the report contributes to changed policies and better safeguards.

“My hope for au pairs is better regulation: a clearer articulation by government that au pairing does qualify as employment in many cases and stronger mechanisms to enforce employment protections for this vulnerable group of young foreign workers.”

The Problem

Because au pairing in Australia is an informal arrangement, very little is known about the day-to-day experiences of au pairs in this country, or how prevalent it is.

The Response

Researchers conducted a national survey of 1,479 au pairs. The findings—published in Cultural Exchange or Cheap Housekeeper?—are the first comprehensive study of au pairing in Australia.

What helped accomplish this?

Laurie Berg’s track record in migrant worker rights research enabled her to draw on a network of expertise in the area and gain the trust of individuals, service providers and au pair agencies who advised on survey design and assisted with translation and distribution.

What has changed as a result?

The findings have received widespread media attention, both within Australia and internationally. They provide empirical evidence to support the introduction of better regulation and more targeted enforcement to protect the rights of au pairs.
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