News National Au pairs in Australia an ‘extraordinary example of young people being exploited’

Au pairs in Australia an ‘extraordinary example of young people being exploited’

Au pair agencies can't keep up with demand, but Australia's lack of regulation is leaving foreign au pairs vulnerable to exploitation, experts say. Photo: Getty
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Australia’s au pair agencies have a message for Peter Dutton: save yourself the hassle of endless phone calls from mates, and create an au pair visa that lets in people from all over the world.

Mr Dutton found himself at the centre of a controversy this week when it was revealed he had intervened to allow European au pairs into the Australia following approaches from influential citizens. He did so while maintaining a hard-line stance on keeping children in migration detention centres.

The industry has been pushing that barrow for at least two years, promising that such a move would afford better protections for both au pairs and families in what is an unregulated form of child care.

But really, money is the big reason the au pair agencies want a special visa. The demand is so high for au pairs—as more Australian families look for a cheaper alternative to regular paid childcare—that agencies can’t keep up.

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton (left) has come under fire for intervening to allow French au pair Alexandra Deuwel (right) to stay in the country. Photo: Getty/Facebook

Au pair agencies have already lobbied successfully to have working holiday visas extended from six months to a year, so families can hang on to their cut-price nannies – because replacing them isn’t so easy.

This was the picture painted by Miryam Aubert, International Recruitment manager for au pair Australia, based in Sydney. Ms Aubert said the agency places 300 young women a year with Australian families, where they work for up to 45 hours a week – longer than most childcare workers.

“We receive seven applications a day and could easily place 600 au pairs,’’ she told The New Daily.

The problem is the visa. The holiday working visa only applies to girls coming from a limited number of countries. There are many girls who want to work as au pairs in Australia but they can’t get that working holiday visa.

There are two classes of working holiday visa – the Work and Holiday (subclass 462) and Working Holiday (subclass 417), which apply to young people aged between 18 and 30 – and is meant to “promote international understanding”.

There are 42 countries with which Australia enjoys a reciprocal arrangement in issuing and recognising these visas. Those countries include the USA, UK, Europe and Canada – and they supply most of the au pairs to Australia. Vietnam, Israel, Turkey and Uruguay not so much.

Michela Marchisio
Mr Dutton also overruled border officials to allow Italian au pair Michela Marchisio to enter the country, it has been revealed. Photo: Facebook

There is no regulation of the industry in Australia – and the agencies are at pains to explain they follow the model of European regulations, where both parties — au pair and family — sign a contract that details expected working hours, who covers health insurance, and what notice needs to be given for the contract to be broken.

There’s a double-edged tone to the au pair agency websites. They tend to characterise an au pair as a big sister role – where she helps out with the kids, does her share of the housework as a family member, is entitled to a “cosy” room of her own, cosy being real estate speak for a shoebox. But she could be called upon to do the school run, the laundry, and make meals.

For this they receive $7 an hour “pocket money” (the industry’s euphemism for a wage) and bed and board. Tax of course is paid on that pocket money.

Ros McLennan is General Secretary of the Queensland Council of Unions. When The New Daily quoted au pair agency pay and conditions, she said: “That sounds like an extraordinary example of a young person being exploited without any regards for industrial relations law. There is a minimum wage in Australia and this scenario suggests and  industry operating on a catch-me if you can mentality.”

Ms McLennan said au pairs are workers. And $7 an hour – the room and board notwithstanding — “is a flagrant disregard of the minimum wage and employment regulation standards in this country and these people are being ripped off blind.”

In a submission the Senate enquiry into Peter Dutton’s intervening in the visa difficulties of several European au pairs, the council has asked: “There appears to be a notion that au pairs are not entitled to the protection of employment regulation.”

Dr Laurie Berg is Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UTS. She has been researching the experiences of au pairs in Australia and is soon to publish her findings.

“I’m sure that many au pairs have a fantastic experience with their families and a great cultural experience. Having said that, the lack of regulations is really problematic, because it leaves au pairs vulnerable to exploitation by families.”

The grey area of the au pair has led to some weird situations. Dr Berg tells of an Australian family who took their kids and au pair on holiday to New Zealand. The problem was the New Zealand immigration decided the au pair was working – and therefore not entitled to come into the country. She was detained in Queenstown and deported. The NZ authorities later apologised, “recognising their reaction was over the top.”

If only that poor girl had had a friendly minister to call upon.