The help: Irish-style

Many cleaners, au pairs and carers live in the shadows of Irish life: hired by word of mouth, engaged without contracts, paid below minimum wage. How do this vulnerable group see their adopted country?

When you're watching Downton Abbey it's nice to think that the master-servant relationships it depicts are in the past. But there has been a boom in domestic service and care in recent years across the western world. London, for example, has as many domestic workers now as it did in Victorian times. This work, involving the care of old, sick and young people, is often done by immigrant workers, some undocumented.

Tonight at the Gresham hotel in Dublin the Domestic Workers Action Group at Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is having a 10th-anniversary dinner. The special guest is Ai-jen Poo, the director of the US National Domestic Workers' Alliance and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. She calls the care sector the Wild West.

“Every eight seconds someone in the US turns 65,” she says. “So there’s a tremendous need for care on both ends of the generational spectrum, and it’s embedded in an economy that needs more women in the workforce. [Caregiving is] one of the fastest-growing sectors, but everything happens in the shadows. It’s informal . . . Families hire through word of mouth or newspaper ads . . . We’ve estimated that two-thirds of the workforce are foreign born and about half of those are undocumented. Across the board we’re finding high levels of vulnerability, abuse and poverty wages.”

Open to abuse
In Ireland there are few accurate figures. It is clear that while there are many mutually beneficial and respectful employer-employee relationships, the sector is still open to abuse.

“People who are undocumented or have irregular immigration status are most vulnerable to exploitation because of the obvious power dynamic,” says Edel McGinley, deputy director of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. She estimates that Ireland has between 26,000 and 30,000 undocumented immigrants.

“A lot entered legally and were rendered undocumented by an employer. This facilitates a kind of coercive condition for people. They have their passports taken, are paid little money and are living and working in the same accommodation. Language might be a difficulty. Employers try to control their movements and who they speak to.”

This is all complicated by issues of race and nationality. In the US in the 1930s, 53 per cent of all African-American women did domestic work. “Today it’s mostly immigrant women,” says Ai-jen Poo. “It’s certainly easier for employers to dehumanise that workforce because of the social inequities.”

There are also issues of gender. A lot of this work “is traditionally associated with being a wife and a mother, and there’s a problem with commodifying that”, says Prof Bridget Anderson, deputy director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford. “On the one hand it’s low-status work, and on the other it’s work that is seen as priceless. There’s an anxiety both ways.”

Anderson has spoken at length with such workers and their employers. Exploitative employers rarely see themselves as such. “Most people don’t want to think they’re offering poor work,” she says. “They want to feel that they’re a nice person, that this job is an opportunity.

“They can transform a dead-end job into a golden opportunity by giving it to a foreigner. You can talk about what marvellous things [their employee has] done with their money. How they’ve seen their children through school and they’ve paid for their mother’s medical care . . . A hundred years ago you could do the same thing with young women from rural areas coming into urban areas.”

Resolving contradictions
For Anderson, improving this situation involves a mix of union representation and "a decent immigration policy that recognises the household as a very particular employment space". It's also important, she says, for western society to resolve its own contradictions. If we want more women in the workplace, we need to properly fund and respect care work. Employers of care workers are, she says, often in difficult financial situations themselves.

In Ireland in recent years some action has been taken. McGinley welcomes the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill – “which replaces the ad-hoc immigration legislation developed on the hoof in the Celtic Tiger” – and the National Employment Rights Authority’s new willingness to inspect private homes.

But Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is concerned about the exploitation of au pairs, who are frequently used as a form of cheap domestic labour and childcare. This is partly because of the restrictions on immigration for much-needed care workers, says McGinley. "When you don't have legal channels for migration, the market finds its own way of responding."

'They pay me a bit less than the child benefit'

Anele Jakiel, from Malawi, used to be a live-in childminder and is now a care worker for an elderly man

Anele Jakiel, who is 43, didn’t know she was an illegal immigrant for two years. She was a childminder for a well-off Zimbabwean family in Blanchardstown, in northwest Dublin. The mother worked for an airline. The father was an engineer. They had four children. “They took my passport and told me that everything was sorted. I trusted them.”

Leaving her children behind with family, she found herself working seven days a week, 13 hours a day. She initially earned €400 a month, which she sent home. “They paid me a bit less than the child benefit,” she says. She cooked, cleaned and looked after the children. She shared a room with the two-year-old and had no privacy.

She met fellow domestic workers on the school runs but didn’t think she was allowed to talk to them. One day she heard that one of her friends had returned home with the help of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and the intervention of the Garda.

“She called me and told me there was a group which could help me, but I was scared to leave. I didn’t know what to do. Though I was earning very little, it was a lot of money for my family. It was providing food, clothing, education. I’m the breadwinner.”

But the situation started to affect her. She began to worry that she was actually a slave, that one of her family had sold her. In fact, she never told her family about her predicament. “I was very depressed. I couldn’t sleep. I thought I was going to die in that house and leave my children with no one looking after them.”

Eventually she arranged to meet Edel McGinley, and the centre helped extricate her and found her a place to live. Her case went to the Labour Relations Commission where the judge accepted some, but not all, of her claims. She was awarded €33,000, “but the family haven’t paid the money”.

Since then she has married, been joined by her 19-year-old daughter and trained as a care worker. She is eligible for citizenship next year and has had very positive experiences working for elderly Irish people.

“I was looking after an elderly woman living with a son, and the son was very nice to me. We’re still in contact. Then I worked with an elderly man of 96 who lived with his wife. I felt part of that family. Even at family gatherings they included me.”

Since then she has been working with another older man. “He’s 100,” she says. “And still so strong.” It’s a physically and mentally challenging job, but she likes it. Sometimes it bothers her that she can’t help her own ageing relatives.

“My father has problems with his legs. I think it’s arthritis. I sent him money to go to the doctor, but he won’t go. I wish I was there helping him . . . At home it’s the children’s responsibility to look after their parents. Here it’s different.”

When she arrived in Ireland she couldn’t get over the stocked supermarket shelves and the sense of order. “It’s a country with law,” she says. But it’s also a country with racism – “I was spat at, at a bus stop today,” she says – and she finds it difficult to befriend Irish people. “I often feel separate. But I love Ireland. It’s my home.”

'The employers are lovely people, but it's still exploitation'

Adelita Monteiro, from Brazil, is a former au pair and the founder of an au-pair group that meets each week

Several years ago Adelita Monteiro got a position as an au pair with a wealthy family in a beautiful part of Dublin. On the surface it looked great. “I had a beautiful room with an amazing view,” she says. But the main issue with being an au pair, as Monteiro now knows, is one of boundaries. You may start out with an agreement on what’s expected, but it’s hard to have a clear-cut division of work and leisure when you’re under someone else’s roof.

“I was expected to get up at 6am or 6.30am and get the children ready for school, clean, Hoover, organise everything, make the beds.”

She was working a full week for €80.

The host family didn’t see it like that. “To them it looked like I didn’t do anything,” she says. “No matter how much an au pair works, I think it’s very easy for them to think, Ugh, she’s living here, eating my food, using my energy: she’s getting a lot for nothing. There’s often a feeling of resentment.”

The mother would fly off the handle for minor incidents. “I remember her screaming, ‘You’re so stupid! You’re so stupid!’ ”

Monteiro had no privacy. “She complained about the way I made my own bed. She didn’t want me closing the curtains.”

Eventually Monteiro left. She studied equality at University College Dublin, contributed to a report on au pairs in Ireland called Part of the Family? and established a weekly support group for au pairs. She is now married, with a second child on the way.

She says there are two groups of au pairs: those from western Europe, who are often engaged in a genuine cultural exchange, and those from developing countries, who are really hired as underpaid childminders. “There is no contract, because the agencies and the families don’t see what they do as work,” she says. “They might have agreed on work hours, but in fact they’re left with the children all the time.”

She talks about one au pair in her group who sleeps in a bed with a four-month-old baby. Another is expected to do shifts in the family pub for no extra money, and another discovered that she also had to look after an elderly person. Nothing was ever said. The old person was just there and needed care.

“A lot of the au pairs tell me their family was formerly paying €10 an hour for a childminder but now have them instead. They tell me they’ve overheard conversations between mums: ‘Why are you paying that? You should get a Brazilian au pair.’ ”

Some of them love their families, she says, “but that doesn’t mean they work less.” One girl does all the babysitting, cooking and cleaning for €200 a week. The employer in that instance is a solicitor. “He knows the law. He tells her that if anyone calls she’s to say that she’s a friend of the family. She says that they’re lovely people, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exploitation.”

Some countries, such as the US and Germany, have strict guidelines. Monteiro doesn't think this is enough. She believes au pairs should be subject to normal employment law. "I don't think people value their own children if they don't value the person minding them."

They gave me difficult and dangerous jobs'
Jayson Montenegro, from the Philippines, is an undocumented care worker

Jayson Montenegro is happy to publicise the plight of undocumented workers, but he’s usually uncomfortable with attention. He works as a live-in carer for an elderly man with Alzheimer’s disease. Sometimes the man forgets who Montenegro is and shouts at him in public.

Montenegro worries about someone calling the police. He once called the fire brigade about a burning skip near his house and fretted for days because they took his details. He has been here nine years. At home he has a family – he has three children – worked for a bank and was a local politician. “It was a very small salary, not enough to support my children,” he says.

So he came here at the height of the construction boom and was exploited from the start. If an employer refused to pay him there was nothing he could do. They would simply threaten to report him. “They gave me difficult and dangerous jobs.” At one point he was cleaning sceptic tanks. “If I remember that I cry,” he says. “I had no safety gear. But I’d think, It’s for my kids.”

Some of his employers told him they were trying to get him a work permit. Now he’s not so sure. “I think some of them thought that would make me work harder.”

In recent years Montenegro has worked with elderly people and has had happier experiences. He spent two years working for an elderly man in Limerick. “I felt like he was my own family,” he says. “I felt like he was my grandfather, and I think he felt I was his grandson.”

But it can be emotionally difficult. “I’d often think, Why am I doing this job while I cannot look after my own parents? They have heart problems. They need to be cared for. But I couldn’t pay for medicine for my dad if I wasn’t here.”

Montenegro is very happy with his current employers. “They are good people,” he says. But he is aware that his treatment depends on the whims of strangers. Even in recent years he has worked long days for well below minimum wage. He saves all of his money and worries constantly about his status. He worries about his family. Watching news of Typhoon Haiyan unfold, he has worried about his whole nation. (His immediate family are safe.)

He receives a lot of support from friends in the Filipino community, but some are in similar situations. He would like the Government to give him and others like him a chance to regularise their status.

“We look after their parents and their houses and their children,” he says. “I think we’re important to them. If we weren’t here their lives would stop. They’d have to mind their own families.”