Let’s not shut the door to au pairs

Alternatives to the program must be explored

toddler with woman

Photo: Colourbox
Educating people from low-income countries with limited financial resources is an important form of foreign aid, the authors write.

MAY-LEN SKILBREI
University of Oslo

ELISABETH STUBBERUD
Norwegian University of Science and Technology

LENE LØVDAL
EGALIA Centre Against Discrimination

Mandatory part-time work. Obligation to live at the workplace. A residence permit contingent on a valid employment contract. On March 29, it was confirmed that the government will shut down the au pair program.

This comes by no means as a surprise. Research and investigations, including from the three of us, have long documented that the program is misused to obtain cheap labor, and that key elements of the au pair program itself put the au pairs in a vulnerable situation.

You are employed, but you are also supposed to be part of the family. The line between work and leisure is blurred, and the power imbalance makes it difficult to set boundaries.

If you are not able to move in with a new host family immediately, your residence permit terminates. A decade of attempts to compensate for this cannot hide the fact that basic elements of the program are deeply problematic.

The alternative is worse

At the same time, the program’s popularity highlights two things: poor women’s (and some men’s) need to travel to Norway to work, and many Norwegian families’ need for help at home.

Are there fairer alternatives?

The program has been widely used by women who otherwise have few opportunities to come to Norway. They are not refugees, and they are not skilled labor.

When the government says that they want proper working conditions for everyone, it does not help them, because they cannot work in Norway without the au pair program. Their alternative, therefore, is not to work under decent conditions in Norway but rather an existence in another country.

There is reason to believe that what the women get instead is poor jobs in their home country or in countries with less protection for au pairs and workers in general.

What about part-time studies?

Some au pairs have already completed education within health care or another field in their home country. They use the au pair program to get their education approved in Norway and to learn Norwegian.

Some want to get a health-care education in Norway, where there is great demand for workers. Foreign students already have the opportunity to work alongside their studies. The barriers are a requirement for a financial guarantee and full-time studies.

What if these requirements were loosened so that au pairs could enroll in part-time studies?

Such a residence permit would not be based on a contract with the host family. It would give the au pairs a network beyond their employer to a greater extent than what the current program offers.

The option of taking a part-time job of housework and childcare, perhaps with free or inexpensive living arrangements, could be attractive to many parties. Such an arrangement would mean less power inequality, and the employee would be protected by greater independence and a larger network.

Educating people from low-income countries with limited financial resources is an important form of foreign aid. Even if they stay in Norway, a lot of money is sent back to their home countries. Education could be combined with the work the au pairs do now, including living with a host family for those who choose to, but under completely different conditions.

Alternatives to the program should at least be explored before we shut the door to au pairs for good.

What is an au pair?

An au pair is a young person from a foreign country working for, and living as part of, a host family. Typically, au pairs take on a share of the family’s responsibility for child care as well as some housework, and receive a monetary allowance for personal use.

The word “au pair” is French and means “at par” or “equal to,” indicating that the relationship is intended to be one of equals: the au pair is a (temporary) member of the family, rather than a traditional domestic worker.

The au pair program was established in Europe after World War II and was intended as a cultural exchange program providing families and au pairs with a chance to experience and learn about new cultures.

In Norway, the program was initiated in 1971. There are currently 1,100 au pairs in Norway with a valid permit; 85% are from the Philippines.

The monthly allowance for an au pair in Norway is NOK 5,900, in addition to free room and board.

The government announced on March 29, 2023 that it will discontinue the program, arguing that it no longer serves as cultural exchange but rather as a way to obtain cheap labor.

Source: wikipedia.com / NTB

Translated by Ragnhild Hjeltnes

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.