Legal group calls for Norway’s withdrawal from ‘au pair’ system

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An independent organization that offers legal aid to women in Norway is proposing withdrawal from the international au pair system that brings many young foreign women to Norway under the premise of cultural exchange. The organization (Juridisk rådgivning for kvinner, JURK) fears that too many end up working as poorly paid domestic help and are vulnerable to abuse.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Wednesday that JURK, in a new report, thinks Norwegian authorities should re-evaluate whether Norway should participate in the international au pair system to which it’s currently tied through a Council of Europe convention from 1969.

“There are many international conventions that Norway isn’t part of,” Lene Løvdal, in charge of legal rights and special projects for JURK, told NRK. “We can raise the question whether the convention on au pairs is outdated.”

‘Camouflage’ for migrant labour
Løvdal said the au pair system “camouflages migrant labour and can lead to social dumping.” In extreme cases, she told NRK, it can also amount to human trafficking. There have been cases, also in Norway, where young women traveling abroad to live with host families end up working long hours as housemaids and child minders, don’t receive the language and cultural experiences they’re promised and even have been subject to sexual abuse and confinement.

As many as 90 percent of the roughly 3,000 au pairs in Norway have, since 2008, come from the Philippines, according to an earlier report by labour research organization FAFO, and their numbers have been increasing. While Norwegian authorities have proposed means of better protecting au pairs, JURK’s legal experts have concluded that they’re still vulnerable to exploitation. They travel to countries like Norway for a limited period to experience life in another part of the world, to perform some work for their host families but also to learn the language and culture.

Reality, once in their new homes, can be very different since the au pairs become so dependent on their hosts. JURK contends au pairs must be viewed as employees and subject to other programs that secure their rights “both formally and in reality.”

Not an easy conclusion
Løvdal said the legal organization’s conclusion was not arrived at hastily and that it wasn’t easy to recommend that Norway should wind down its own au pair system, “since there are many good host families and several positive aspects of cultural exchange.” It’s nonetheless difficult to secure the rights of the young women, also those of Norwegian women who would also stand to lose the possibility of traveling to other European countries as au pairs.

The biggest challenge is that au pairs live where they work, and it’s thus difficult to separate working time from free time. Their temporary residence is tied to their au pair contracts and because they’re in their new countries for such a short time, they’re not well-advised of their own rights. “This all leads to a disproportionate balance of power between the au pair and the au pair’s family,” Løvdal said.

JURK, which holds information meetings for au pairs (external link) every other Friday, has provided legal aid for more than 50,000 women in Norway since its founding in 1974. It sprung out of the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s, backed by female lawyers and law students at the University of Oslo. Today the group, staffed largely by legal experts volunteering their services, is formally gender neutral but remains active in providing legal assistance to women even if only to advise women of their legal rights and help them to help themselves. The organization also studies various issues, such as the au pair system.

Løvdal said the Norwegian authorities could replace the current au pair system with another program for cultural exchange that wouldn’t, among other things, combine residence with work.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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