Q&A: Au pairs and the thorny problem of childcare

What should parents who employ them do? Treat them well, they care for your children

What’s going on with au pairs in Ireland?

We'd not be exaggerating to say that the entire sector has been thrown into disarray following a ruling this week from the Workplace Relations Commission. It awarded a Spanish woman almost €10,000 on the grounds that a family who had employed her had breached multiple pieces of employment law.

Does employment law cover au pairs?

Well, yes. And no. According to the Citizen's Information Bureau, there is "no legal definition of or regulatory framework in relation to au pairs". As it is generally understood however, it is an arrangement between host families and foreign students "who come to a country with a view to learning the language and getting a better understanding of the culture of that country".


So they are all language students?

No. That is what they used to be. Many au pairs still come to Ireland to study English but it is not a given.

Anywhere else we can clarify what an au pair is?

When asked to define au pairs the Department of Justice has said it “is regarded as a private, voluntary matter between the parties concerned on the basis of a shared understanding. Therefore, such persons are not regarded as employees but are received by a family and treated as a family member in exchange for certain services, such as limited amounts of housework or baby-sitting. This activity is regarded as primarily cultural rather than economic.”

Right, well that’s confusing. Is it a cultural exchange with benefits or a job?

It is supposed to be a cultural exchange. However, the reality can be very different. About 20,000 families in the Republic have au pairs. Many of those would rather not have them. The families have little or no interest in cultural exchanges and don’t really like the idea of a stranger living in their home and looking after their children. However, many families have no choice because they cannot access affordable, well-regulated childcare.

How much does ‘well regulated childcare’ cost?

A lot. Parents who send one child to a creche will not have much change out of €200 a week. If you have three children under the age of five, the cost of childcare will easily top €2,000 a month. To spend that kind of money a family needs to earn nearly €50,000 a year.

That is a lot of money. How much does an au pair cost?

One who does “light household work” and works a 20 hour work week will earn between €80 and €120, according to the agencies who source au pairs for Irish families . If they work more than 20 hours a week best practice would suggest you pay “a salary proportional to the extra duties and hours they are working”.

But €100 for a 20-hour week is €5 an hour. What’s the minimum wage?

It is €9.15 an hour.

So it’s illegal to employ one if you only pay them €120 a week then?

Well, no. There’s no real problem if a family is paying €120 a week and an au pair is doing no more than 20 hours because on to the wage you add the cost of board and lodging which takes it above the minimum wage. The problem arises when au pairs are expected to work a 35-hour week. Many au pairs are doing way in excess of that and still only being paid €100 a week.

Well that’s not right.

No, it is not. A European Parliament report in 2011 into au pairs studied six countries, including Ireland and it said that here the "au pair stay has, to some extent, become primarily a commodity, sold by agencies and implemented as a "less-expensive" care and domestic worker in private homes, and only secondary a cultural-exchange scheme.

So au pairs should be treated like regular employees then?

Going back to the Citizen’s Information Bureau, it said the fact of using the term “au pair” to describe an arrangement between consenting parties “does not mean an employment contract does not exist. Contract law and employment legislation are generally used to establish whether or not a person is an employee. A person performing a duty for another person in exchange for a payment would strongly suggest the existence of a contractual relationship.”

So what is the Government saying about the latest ruling?

Well, do not expect either the current administration or the next one to be overly vocal on the matter. One of the reasons so many Irish families use au pairs is because they have little or no choice They simply cannot afford regular childcare costs and the level of State support is risible.

So what should parents who employ au pairs do?

Well first off they should treat their au pairs with respect. They should not treat them as cleaners and they should not force them to work long hours without compensating them properly. A rate of €120 a week for a live-in au pair is okay if they work less than 20 hours. If they work 60 hours for the same amount it is not okay. In making its ruling the Workplace Relations Commission said domestic workers – which includes those engaged in cleaning, cooking and child-minding – enjoy the same protection under Irish employment legislation as all other legally employed workers.

This means they are entitled to a written statement of their terms and conditions of employment, a pay slip, to be paid at least at the national minimum wage and to annual leave and public holidays. They are also entitled to work on average no more than a 48-hour working week, to minimum notice before dismissal and to be registered as an employee with Revenue and the Department of Social Protection.

So, what should parents with au pairs do or those looking for one do now?

Be nice. Treat au pairs well. And remember they are looking after your children so don’t treat them like the hired help or worse.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast