There is no legal framework in place specifically for au pairs working in Ireland, according to citizensinformation.ie. However, it is generally understood that there should be some specific written agreement in place between the family and the worker in relation to how many hours per week they will work and how much they will be paid.
Unfortunately, this does not seem to prevent the exploitation of the, more often than not, foreign students who come to Ireland hoping to improve their English, both through academic courses and practical interaction.
Roberta*, a 21-year-old from Brazil was one of these students. While studying, she began to run short on money and, taking into account the conditions of her visa allowing her to work twenty hours a week, she decided to get a job as an au pair.
She moved in with a family and agreed to look after a two year old girl, Sarah*, on weekday mornings before attending her English classes in the afternoon.
“In the beginning it was fine, I woke up at 7am and made breakfast for Sarah, dressed her and prepared anything she might need for the rest of the day. Sometimes her mother would ask me to come to the supermarket with her and the children. Sarah didn’t like this and would often behave very badly, her mother rarely disciplined her for this and I had to distract her,” Roberta explained.
As the months went by conditions became more difficult for Roberta.
“They didn’t provide me with a lock for my room or cabinets and I noticed that sometimes things would be in a different position than when I left them. One day I returned to see my perfume smashed on the floor, when I asked her mother what happened she said that Sarah had gotten into my room when she wasn’t looking and had broken it.”
Although the agreement was that Roberta would only work on weekday mornings, she was put under pressure to get up with Sarah on Saturday and Sunday mornings too.
“I ended up working Saturdays and Sundays with Sarah, and I was also asked to clean the house while the family were gone. I was paid €120 per week regardless of how many days I worked and I rarely had any time to myself as I was studying every day too.
“At that time I had very little English and no confidence to confront them about how unhappy I was,” she reveals.
Roberta was later told that her services were no longer needed as Sarah’s mother couldn’t afford to pay her anymore.
“She let me stay for one week and I had to argue with her to pay me for that week as I was still minding Sarah. I stayed for three months in total, but it was the worst experience of my life.”
Founder of the Au Pair Rights Association, Jane Xavier, reveals that she has dealt with cases much worse than this one, where domestic workers work forty hour weeks and get paid as little as €3 an hour.
“Domestic workers are an historically vulnerable group. Despite doing essential and important caring and cleaning work in all societies, facilitating others to work outside the home, domestic workers are undervalued, underpaid and overworked,” she explains.
To improve conditions, Xavier says a fair wage is key and also that the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) keeps a close eye on au pair agencies.
“NERA has the power to inspect the employment conditions of anyone working in a private home. They must work closely with families employing au pairs to protect and uphold our rights and protections under the law, in addition to tackling au pair agencies who are in breach of employment laws.”
*Sarah and Roberta’s names have been changed to protect their identities