The right au pair for the right Family

Investigation about Danish au pair scheme

 Date: 08.05.13

A qualitative and quantitative investigation
Author(s): Anika Liversage, Rebekka Bille & Vibeke Jakobsen
Publisher: SFI
Date of publication: 7.05.2013
This report is a study of the Danish au pair scheme and sheds light on how the scheme works today. The au pair scheme is based on a 1972 European agreement stipulating that a central purpose of an au pair stay is cultural exchange. An au pair residency permit in Denmark can last up to 24 months, during which the au pair resides with a specific host family. In Denmark the au pair is to occupy a familial position and to take care of domestic chores in return for board, lodging, and monthly allowance.

Generally, an au pair has to be between 18 and 30 years old, unmarried, and childless, and have a specified minimum of educational and linguistic qualifications (e.g. speak English). A host family must have children under the age of 18, as well as a house of a certain size, as an au pair is to have his or her own room.

An au pair’s chores should lase no more than 30 hours a week. Moreover, the au pair should have at least one day off each week, as well as a specified vacation. The minimum monthly allowance was raised to 3,200 DKK by January 2013. If the au pair lives in a country outside of Europe, the host family is also obliged to pay for the au pair’s journey home at the end of the stay.

Previous studies of the Danish au pair arrangement point out that the way in which host families and au pairs practice this arrangement today is not consistent with the intentions of the underlying European agreement. Rather than either party’s desiring cultural exchange, the au pairs are generally strongly motivated by financial needs, and the host families are motivated by needs for assistance with their household duties.
The investigation, which is primarily qualitative, is based on 69 interviews – 31 made with au pairs, 28 with host families and 10 with researchers and representatives of different organizations, for example NGOs that counsel au pairs and host families. In addition to this qualitative material, we use an analysis of register data from SFR (Styrelsen for Fastholdelse og Rekruttering – Danish Agency for Labour Retention and International Recruitment) and Statistics Denmark to describe characteristics of host families and au pairs. The analyses of register data are based on all new au pair residence permits issued in 2011, i.e. the analyses of the host families are based on the families that have received new au pairs in 2011.

The quantitative analyses show that families with younger children in particular choose to have an au pair. Amongst couples with an au pair, 60% have a child under six years of age, and 89% have a child under 10 years of age. Amongst the single parents with an au pair, 39% have a child under 6 years of age, and 74% have a child under 10 years of age. Hence, the single parents with an au pair have slightly older children than do the couples. About 10% of host families are single parents.
A typical host family differs from an average Danish family in a number of ways, as do place of residence in Denmark, educational level, occupation, income and housing conditions. Geographically, the host families are particularly overrepresented in some municipalities north of Copenhagen, i.e. 20% of all host families live in the municipality of Gentofte and 11% in the municipality of Rudersdal.

Furthermore, the parents in the host families are highly educated as compared with the Danish population in general. Amongst the couples with an au pair, about 50% have at least one parent with a higher education and in about 25% both parents have a higher education. Amongst singles with an au pair, about 33% have a higher education. In contrast, only about 12% of all Danes aged 35-44 have a higher education.

The high educational level is reflected in the occupations and incomes of the host families. Compared to the population in general, the parents of the host families are more often employed in top management and hold positions that demand high qualifications (attainable, for example through an academic education or teacher education). Furthermore, a large share of the host parents is self-employed. This overrepresentation in self-employment and employment at the top of the occupation hierarchy is valid both for the men and the women in the couple families and for singles. However, the men in the couple families have the highest shares amongst both the self-employed and top management. Whilst 17% of the men in the couple families are self-employed and 23% have a job in top management, the same is true for also 10% and 7% for all Danish men aged 35-44.

The average income of the parents in the host families is also higher than the income of the average Dane. In the host families, about 70% of the men and 33% of the women in the couple families and 45% of the singles have an annual occupational income of at least 500,000 DKK. Therefore, the host families mostly live in owner-occupied housing. About 83% of the host families live in a detached house or its equivalent. In contrast, only about 45% of all the houses in Denmark are detached. The host families also have relatively large houses, i.e. 62% have a house of at least 175 square meters, whilst only 11% of all houses in Denmark are that large.

In general the host families appear to belong to the affluent part of the population. However, even though many of the host parents have a high level of education, employment at the top of the occupational hierarchy, and high incomes, there are also other host families in which the parents have basic vocational education or medium-length educations, who are employed on lower rungs of the occupational hierarchy, and whose yearly income lies for example between 250,000-400,000 DKK.

The study shows that the host families were often motivated to have an au pair by what the literature terms a ‘time squeeze’: with both parents in many of these families working at high levels, they spend much of their time at work, and some also have to travel occasionally. At the same time their family lives make demands of them – both for having domestic work done and, for the children, to be with their parents. Such demands are especially great when the families have three or more smaller children. Having twins can also increase such demands.

Because Denmark has good provisions for public childcare, many host families say that they primarily want an au pair to take care of the domestic chores, especially cleaning. This task can be time-consuming, as the host families often live in large houses. An au pair’s efforts can free the host parents from many domestic chores, thereby enabling them to both maintain a great commitment to their work and spend time at home with their children.

In addition, the host families are often motivated by the flexibility that an extra person – a third adult – in the household can supply. A third adult is especially appreciated at family peak load times, e.g. in the mornings and during the hour before dinner. The need for another adult in the household may especially motivate single parents. For example, in the case of divorce, a parent who works in the evenings may be able to retain his or her job only through having an au pair.

As both domestic work and childcare are still generally considered a female area of responsibility, several host families say that the alternative to having had an au pair would have been for the woman (not the man) of the host couple to work less. Irrespective of the fact that the men in the couple families (similar to the national average) generally have the highest occupations and incomes, both the men and the women in host couples are general equally well-educated. This finding helps explain why the women do not want to work part-time for the sake of the family, thus motivating the couple to bring an au pair into the family home.

The majority of Danish au pairs come from the Philippines. Of the au pair residency permits granted in 2011, 81% were to individuals from the Philippines. The second largest group is from Ukraine, with the remainder divided amongst several other nationalities. Many au pair applicants are well educated and the majority finished a medium-length education before coming to Denmark. In 2011, 2,409 residence permits were granted to au pairs in Denmark, with only 3% of these were given to men. The majority of the au pairs were between 22 and 27 years old.

According to the interviews, many au pairs are economically motivated to come to Denmark. Several provide for their families in their home country and, whilst in Denmark, pay for the schooling, hospital treatment, etc. of family members. Several of the au pairs had previously worked in other countries, either as domestic workers in, e.g. Hong Kong or the Middle East, as au pairs in European countries (e.g. Norway, the Netherlands), or both. Some au pairs view an au pair stay in Denmark as part of a lifelong strategy. Thus, for example young Filipina women often work abroad for prolonged periods of their lives because the labour market in their home-country cannot absorb the country’s workforce. Some au pair respondents state that they are planning to return to the Philippines when their stay in Denmark ends – perhaps taking with them savings from their two years spent here. Others say that they plan to go to other countries to work, and in a few cases expressed hope that stay in Denmark could lead to permanent migration to a Western country.

Not all the interviewed au pairs, however, are bound by economic obligations in their home countries. Some au pairs state that their primary motivation to come to Denmark is to have experiences far from home. This point of view is commonly expressed not only by au pairs from the former Soviet Union but also by some au pairs from the Philippines.

The connection between an au pair and a host family is established in different ways. In some cases the two parties find each other through internet sites. In other cases the connection is forged through different agencies. Recruitment can occur through established social networks, often through sisters or cousins already staying in Denmark. These incoming relations or acquaintances may, in turn, stay with the same host family. In some cases, au pairs come to Denmark with a substantial debt to the agencies or individuals that financed the journey.

The chores of the au pairs in Denmark generally consist of different combinations of cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, and taking care of the children (including picking them up from kinder garden, as well as auxiliary chores such as walking a dog). The extent of these chores varies considerably, and they are organized differently. The interviewed au pairs experience everything from a very light to a very heavy workload.

An important part of the household chores can be the au pair’s role as a third adult (or – with single host parents – a second adult). Au pairs do more than merely help with chores, e.g. setting and clearing the table or making packed lunches. The au pairs are also present in case the host parents should acutely need their assistance. An au pair may thus enable the host parents to not have to interrupt cooking dinner because two children are fighting. Having such a third adult to step in can also save the host parents from having to leave their jobs if a child becomes ill and has to be picked up early or needs to be cared for at home throughout the day.

In some cases the au pairs are comfortable doing these ad hoc duties. In other cases the au pairs are constantly on call, because the host families’ needs for flexible aid at unpredictable times keep the au pairs from having a real time off. Experiences of being constantly on call are related to the fact that au pairs stay in the private home of the host families, where the au pair thus both lives and works.

Determining the interaction between living in a private home and host family expectations that au pairs should be nearly constantly available makes it difficult to limit how many hours the domestic chores of an au pair actually amount to. This difficulty is further aggravated by the au pair scheme being only loosely regulated by the Danish state. Thus an au pair’s eating supper together with the host family in the evening may be considered a natural family activity. Consequently, the time spent here will often not be counted within the weekly maximum of 30 hours. But what if, for example, the au pair both cannot choose not to participate in the evening meal and holds the responsibility for servicing the host family during the meal? Does that change the evening meal into something, which should be counted as “household chore time” or not?

The study shows great differences in how different au pairs spend their spare time. The differences may depend on where in Denmark the au pair lives: as compared with au pairs staying in smaller cities and rural areas, those in, say, Copenhagen, have access to a network of other au pairs living in the same area.

Nationality may also influence an au pair’s ability to network with other au pairs, as relatively few au pairs are not from the Philippines. These non-Filipino au pairs may have greater difficulties establishing social networks during their stay in Denmark. Moreover, many Filipino au pairs make use of the opportunity to become part of Filipino congregations in a number of churches across Denmark. Some au pairs also attend Danish language schools, an activity that can also be central for establishing new contacts during their stay.

Different organisations help au pairs establish contacts with others, as well as informing them about conditions and rights during their stay in Denmark. These organisations also offer counseling if problems or disputes arise. Several respondents say that these networks, and the ability to receive help if they experience problems are of great importance to them.

Finally, some au pairs become friends with Danes outside their host families. A few au pairs find Danish boyfriends and perhaps become pregnant. According to SFR 154 residence permits for family reunification were given in 2011 to persons who had previously held residence permit as an au pair in Denmark.

Au pairs have the right to have vacation during their stay in Denmark. These rights are roughly similar to the rights of most Danish employees. According to our interviews, several au pairs and host families feel insecure about interpreting the vacation rules. Different NGOs also report that they often are contacted about such problems.

Sometimes the au pairs go on vacation with their host families. This experience may be good if there is a good family-like relationship. In other cases, however, the au pairs report that their participation in a host family’s vacation is primarily about serving the family or taking care of the children. If such vacations are counted as part of the au pair’s vacation, it violates the legislation on vacation. Sadly, such a breach of the rules may occur with neither the au pairs nor the host families being aware that they have broken the law.

In other cases, the au pair’s vacation entails staying in the host family’s home whilst the host family is away. However, such arrangements can delimit the au pair’s opportunities to choose the time of the vacation, and the family may also impose obligations such as taking care of pets. This behavior causes the vacation to not be fully recreational, as it is intended to be, and thus also constitutes a breach of the vacations rules.

Finally, au pairs’ opportunities to freely choose the vacation time may depend on when the host families fell they can be without the presence of the au pairs. Ultimately, then, the host families decide when the au pairs can take their vacations, not the au pairs themselves.

The au pair scheme sets a minimum for au pairs’ monthly allowances. This amount is regulated every year, and was 3,200 DKK as of the 1 January 2013. In 2012, where the interviews were conducted, the rate was 3,150 DKK. Several NGOs report that they receive a number of complaints from au pairs whose allowance is less than what they are entitled to. Our interviews include only one example of this problem. Furthermore, according to our interviews, for au pairs to receive a little more in allowance than the minimum amount (e.g. 3,500 or 4,000 DKK per month) is not uncommon.

Au pairs are entitled to room and board during their stay. However, they may also receive other benefits. According to the interviewees, the host families may buy them clothes, electronics, and presents, or give them a trip within Europe. Several host families report that they buy such presents partly because they are aware of the great global inequality between their (and Danish) wealth and the economic situation of the au pair. A large share of the interviewed au pairs also report receiving cell phones and/or a prepaid telephone cards from their host families. Whilst they may appreciate these “gifts” they may also spring from the host families’ wishing to always be able to contact their au pairs. Thus the provision of such a cell phone may reinforce an au pair’s experience of always being on call.

That many au pairs send large shares of their allowances to their home countries (thus having only little left for their own consumption) may motivate the host families to provide the au pairs with goods, to increase the quality of their au pairs’ stay in Denmark. They may do so, for example by supplying au pairs with tickets for public transport, thereby better allowing them to move around in their free time.

Additionally, some host families pay their au pair’s trip to Denmark, irrespective of not being obliged to do so under the Danish rules. We also hear from several organisations of incidents where unclear agreements and misunderstandings about the economy cause problems during an au pair’s stay in Denmark, e.g. when host families lend their au pair money for the plane ticket to Denmark – an amount that the au pair believes is a present. If the host family considers the ticket cost a loan, disagreements may arise when the host family wants the money back.

Another economic issue concerns different expenses to be paid to the Danish state during an au pair’s stay, primarily the au pairs’ having to pay work related taxes out of their allowances. Several respondents perceived this requirement as peculiar, as elsewhere it is clearly specified that au pairs’ chores are not considered work.

The relationship between the au pair and the host family is of great importance for the au pair’s stay in Denmark. First, great structural inequality exists between the two parties: the au pair’s residence permit is tied to the host family, thus placing the au pair in a dependent position. Whether this difference is problematic in practice depends largely on the host family’s attitude to and motives behind having an au pair. It also is tied to the au pair’s motivations for coming to Denmark, including to what degree the au pair is dependent on the allowances received. The au pairs’ stays in private homes may deepen the dependency if they become attached to – and often also loyal towards – the specific host family.

The dependent position may explain why several au pairs say that, especially at the beginning of their stay, they cannot say ‘no’ to their host families. Thus they may find themselves in situations which they find problematic or offensive, without expressing their views or feelings to the host families. Some of the interviewed host families also report being attentive to the unequal relationship, saying that they try to ensure that their au pair does not spend too many hours on chores or undertake unwanted work due to not wanting to say ‘no’. In other cases we hear of families who appear to use their privileged position to their own advantage or who are simply unattentive to the dependent situation of their au pair.

When feeling unjustly treated by their host families, some au pairs are capable of putting an end to the situation, often through changing to another host family. Other au pairs – often those with few resources and economic pressures from their home countries – may choose to stay where they are.

The difference between different types of host families and different types of au pairs is presented schematically in Figure 1, which proposes four types of au pair stays in Denmark. These stays are divided according to whether the relationship is primarily about domestic work (from the view of the host family) and money (from the view of the au pair), or whether the stay is also about more than domestic work and money. Such broader motivations for an au pair stay appear to be very important for whether both parties (the families and the au pairs) constructively engage in their mutual relationship. This model of course is a simplification of a complex reality, but it is nevertheless useful as a framework for understanding of why au pair stays can be experienced so differently by different respondents.

Figure 1
Model of different types of au pair stays, seen from a motivational point of view:
Au pair: Stay for more than the sake of money
Au pair: Stay for the sake of money
Host family: Au pair stay for more than domestic work
A: Good for both parties. Horizontal relation may be prevailing in daily interaction.
B: The host family may find that the au pair withdraws. The host family may try to educate the au pair to greater participation in the life of the host family.
Host family: Au pair stay for domestic work
C: The au pair feels poorly treated but may have the resources and courage to change to a new host family.
D: The au pair feels poorly treated but may lack the resources and courage to change host families.

In the au pair stays in section A of Figure 1, both the host family and the au pair engage positively in their mutual relationship. Respondents from such au pair stays use family metaphors about their relationship. Thus they could state that their relationship was as close as a relationship to a father/mother or to a daughter. Au pairs from such stays talk about being treated with both care and respect. Regarding the meals in such host families, we often hear of their eating dinner together and appreciating talking with one another.

In section B, host families who expect a family-like relationship with their au pair may be disappointed, as they discover that their au pair is not – from their perspective – sufficiently engaged in the life of the host family. In such cases the host family may end up demanding that the au pair of participation in the family dinner or trying to educate the au pair towards greater individual independence, thus making the au pair better able to be part of the everyday life of the host family. Several host families also say that the submissive attitude of the au pairs can be difficult for them to handle. This problem relates to a Danish context in which is generally appreciated and where blatant status differences are often downplayed rather than highlighted. In contrast, the au pairs in these families may experience demands for their social commitment to the host family as strenuous, given that the stay for them strictly involves being able to send money home. In these cases, the host families may use metaphors such as the au pair being more like a lodger. As to the meals in such stays, some au pairs mostly eat in their rooms. The host families may support them in their decision by making it possible for them to cook on their own. The ‘family’ relationship may become somewhat distant, in contravention to the au pair agreement as formulated today. Both parties, however, may experience such a distance as a practical adjustment to reality.

In both sections C and D in Figure 1, the au pairs feel that their host families primarily want their working power for domestic chores. These au pairs say that they feel situated at the bottom of a hierarchical relation and that they are not being treated with respect. In these cases the au pairs use descriptions of feeling like a maid, cheap work power, or a robot or slave. Some of these au pairs say that the host families threaten to have them thrown out of Denmark if they do not do what the host family demands of them.

Au pair stays in section C often end with the au pair reacting by leaving the host family. This choice requires a certain amount of resources and courage, and may be related to these au pairs not being greatly financially dependent on their au pair allowance. In contrast, au pair stays in section D involve au pairs who lack the resources and courage to leave their host families, despite the bad conditions found here. Such au pairs may have to serve the host family at meals whilst not being included in conversations. In addition to economic dependency, another factor possibly contributing to these au pairs’ not doing something to change the bad conditions is which they find themselves is a lack of knowledge of the Danish rules and a fear of the possible consequences if they complain about the host family’s behavior.

While this qualitative study cannot assert how the size of the shares of the Danish au pair stays in each of these four sections of model 1, the model may nevertheless increase our understanding of the very great differences between au pair stays in Denmark today.

There are great variations in how much cultural exchange is implicated in different au pair stays. We hear from a smaller share of the interviewed au pairs that they are very interested in Danish – and/or European – life and culture. Such au pairs, who are generally not under economic pressure during their stay in Denmark, may spend parts of their allowances on various types of cultural experiences. Their stay may therefore be more about being in Europe (with visits to, say, Paris or Rome as culmination points), not only about being in Denmark.

Whilst other au pairs are less explicitly engaged in Danish/European culture during their stays, they may nevertheless acquire knowledge of Danish ways of life through living in a Danish home for two years. Even though cultural learning for many au pairs and host families is not the main purpose of the stay, it thus becomes a side benefit. In this regard we also hear that some au pairs develop greater individual independence during their stay in Denmark, possibly due to their being far away from home, perhaps for the first time. Simultaneously, some host families actively support such independence, as the families thereby can create a relationship with their au pair that is less overtly unequal. Thus, support for au pairs to become more independent may occur in stays in both sections A and B of Figure 1.

In this study we have heard of several violations of the Danish au pair agreement. The interviews also document the existence of a large grey area where determining or proving exactly when the violations occurred is difficult. One reason is that the au pair stays are located in private homes, so that any disputes rarely have witnesses beyond the two implicated parties. A second reason is that the rules of the au pair agreement are generally not very explicit, e.g. concerning what household chores fall within the agreement or what constitutes work hours. A third reason that au pairs are weakly positioned relative to their host families is important as the au pairs depend on the host families for their Danish residency permit. A fourth reason is that au pairs usually report a breach of the rules only when their stay has ended and they have left their host family. As the au pairs also generally leave Denmark at this time, they are unable to take their former host families to court. Overall, these circumstances help explain why very few host families are charged with transgressing the agreement.

We interviewed several au pairs who spoke of having had large workloads (e.g. 50-60 hours per week) or who had been given chores that were outside the bounds of the agreement. In none of the cases had the au pair reported these transgressions to the Danish authorities.

Instead, the au pairs (and, to a much lesser extend, the host families) in such cases more often contacted various NGOs, such as Au Pair Network and Au Pair Support. These NGOs gave them advice and counseling, and some au pairs (and host families) managed to solve the problems this way. From such organizations we learned that some host families – who, for example initially refused to pay their au pair an amount of money for some specified reason – paid, as soon a third party such as an NGO became involved. This potential power of the NGOs illustrates yet again how the au pairs are weakly positioned in relation to their host families.

Apart from seeking counseling, au pairs may also leave their host family if they feel poorly treated, moving instead to another host family. In 2011, SFR granted a total of 481 residence permits to individuals who previously had held a Danish residence permit as an au pair – i.e. individuals who changed from one host family to another. Such a change of host family may also occur for other reasons, such as living closer to bigger cities, where they have better opportunities of networking with other au pairs.

Finally, we also heard about several au pairs who remained with their host families despite very poor conditions. This situation may have resulted from au pairs’ fears of being unable to find a new host family or because the host family offered them some form of economic compensation for their large workload (the latter in itself a violation of the Danish rules).

In conducting this study, we did not interview anyone reporting larger violations of the Danish penal code – e.g. physical or sexual abuse. From the NGOs, however, we learned that such assaults are very rare. In contrast, both NGOs and several interviewees reported incidents of moonlighting, where au pairs received payment for cleaning private homes other than the host families’. This phenomenon supports the notion that many au pairs have economic motives for staying in Denmark.
In conclusion this study makes evident that the relationship between the individual au pair and the individual host family is central for whether or not an au pair’s stay in Denmark turns out well. In some contexts, the two parties are able to establish some form of pseudo-familial relations and treat each other with mutual warmth and respect, despite one assigning and the other carrying out domestic chores. In other cases, the relationship between the parties is far more hierarchical and openly driven by an exchange between allowances and domestic chores. In such cases the weak positions of the au pairs may be further undermined because their stays in Denmark both occurs behind closed doors and is not being bounded by clear or unambiguous rules.