Equating au pairs with employees is ludicrous

Workplace watchdog’s ruling will be honoured more in the breach than the observance

Caring industry: Exploitation of these moslty young women is the rational response of anyone who cannot access affordable well regulated child care; which is pretty much everybody with children. Photograph: Getty

Caring industry: Exploitation of these moslty young women is the rational response of anyone who cannot access affordable well regulated child care; which is pretty much everybody with children. Photograph: Getty

 

A few years ago we “employed” an au pair. She seemed an innocuous enough young woman from northern Italy. With hindsight, her extensive tattoos were a clue to what might best be termed her being a “free spirit”.

Her great passion was extreme cake baking. Regardless of what task she was allotted on any given day, she invariably decided to bake us a cake instead. She eschewed recipes and the general conventions around mixing eggs, milk and flour. She chose instead to push the boundaries of what up until that point we understood to be baking. The results were presented every evening with a sweet smile and were invariably inedible. Meanwhile, the children’s laundry piled up.

On one occasion she was asked to iron a table cloth for a dinner party. She did an outstanding job that would have passed muster with the manager of Patrick Guilbaud’s. However, it was not until the table cloth was removed later that evening that the secret of her success was revealed. She had laid the cloth on the table and gone at it with the steam iron for 20 minutes. Repairing the damage to the table cost a multiple of what we were paying her and signalled the end of her stay. In what proved a very valuable cross-cultural insight into Italian mores, our attempts to defuse the situation with humour were viewed as an egregious affront to her not inconsiderable pride.

She returned to Italy and no doubt regales her friends with tales of the strange Irish family who didn’t like cakes and had a ridiculous attachment to their dining room table.

The whole thing was a disaster from start to finish. The notion that our relationship with her constituted one of employer and employee seems ludicrous. But according to the Workplace Relations Commission that is exactly what it was. As a result of the Minimum Wage Act, the Organisation of Working Time Act and the Terms of Employment (Information) Act, the WRC awarded one couple’s former au pair €9,229 this week.

The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) brought the case on behalf of the young woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. The MRCI says that it is supporting another 1,000 au pairs and has up to 40 cases pending at the WRC.

Speaking on the radio yesterday, Edel McGinley of the MRCI said that the ruling established beyond doubt that au pairs were employees . She then proceeded to run through a frightening list of consequences arising from the ruling. These included families having to register as small employers, provide written contracts, issue pay cheques, pay social insurance, holiday pay and so on.

Double edge of employment

Employment contracts work both ways. Most significantly they include notice periods. These run counter to the long-established au pair tradition of leaving the host family high and dry with a few days’ notice when something better comes along.

Likewise, you might have to be a bit less tolerant of child-minding that constitutes skyping the boyfriend back home from your bedroom, while the children squabble over the television downstairs. However, one suspects that the WRC ruling will be honoured more in the breach than the observance and that will suit most families and au pairs up and down the country just fine.

But what the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland has done – and one suspects it was the true purpose – is to expose the extent to which au pairing is being used as a cover for the exploitation of illegal immigrants as childcare workers.

One of the more telling figures bandied about yesterday is that nearly half of the 554 au pairs surveyed by the MRCI recently were from Brazil, and one suspects the vast majority are in truth economic migrants trying make a better future for themselves. Hence they find their way to the MRCI rather than just going home to their mums.

Childcare failure

Any effort by the authorities to enforce the consequences of the Workplace Relations Commission decision as outlined by McGinley would be interesting. It would highlight the failure of successive governments to put in place a social service taken for granted in most other European countries – particularly the Nordic social democracies we are so keen to emulate. Given the number of families – and don’t forget “employers” – who would be affected by a clampdown, there might actually be something done about it.

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