Norway’s state immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) is evaluating whether as many as 45 Norwegian families should be prohibited from having the mostly young foreign women called au pair in their homes, because of the families’ alleged violations of the au pair program. State officials believe the families take on au pair as a source of cheap domestic labour instead of the cultural exchange that the program is supposed to provide.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that UDI is considering putting the 45 families under so-called “quarantine,” a status created by the government in 2013 as a means of penalizing those who exploit the au pair system. If the families are found to have violated au pair regulations, such as forcing them to work longer hours than allowed and/or paying them less than required, they can be put in “quarantine” and prevented from taking in au pair for as long as the quarantine period lasts. The length of the quarantine is tied to the extent of the violations.
Big increase in exploitation cases
The number of families under probe has soared. DN reported that UDI placed seven families in quarantine last year, after Norway’s new law provided a means of cracking down on the au pair exploitation that has been a problem for many years.
Steinar Rotevatn, who leads the UDI division responsible for issuing visas and handling au pair applications in Norway, said that the most common violations involve wage requirements and work hours. “But we see the whole spectrum (of violations) when we have cases up for evaluation, from serious allegations that are also handled by the court system to more dubious violations of the rules,” Rotevatn told DN.
Norway is committed to following the Council of Europe’s agreement from 1969 that established the au pair program as a means of cultural exchange. It’s meant to allow young adults all over the world to travel to other countries and live with families, who provide room, board and spending money. The au pair are meant to be “on equal footing” with the family and learn about their culture and language, while helping in return with child care and some domestic chores.
The au pair who come to Norway, the majority of whom are young women from the Philippines, are not supposed to work more than five hours a day or a maximum of 30 in one week. Families are only allowed to have one au pair at at time and must pay them a minimum of NOK 5,400 (USD 635 at current exhanges rates) per month in addition to providing food and lodging. UDI regulates the program in line with Norwegian immigration law and au pair visas are issued for a maximum of two years.
Cases of exploitation have cropped up for years, however, also after the government attempted to crack down on them. Some families, according to Rotevatn, “believe that the au pair system should suit their purposes,” and not those attached to the program today. DN was given insight into three “typical” cases, one in which an au pair was ordered to work for others than just the host family, without receiving pay as agreed. Other au pair were not offered the Norwegian language classes they were promised, they have been denied days off and have worked many more hours than the legal maximum of 30 a week. In some cases pay was withheld, or the amount was not in accordance with the rules.
The au pair system, justified as a program for cultural exchange, “is in practice a labour program,” Åsa S Hebnes, legal adviser at the Au Pair Center in Oslo, told DN. She equated it to a means of acquiring cheap domestic help that’s not subject to Norway’s otherwise strict labour laws. The leader of Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO called for scrapping the entire system last year, as has a legal aid group for women in Norway. Hebnes noted that when conflicts occur, it’s usually the au pair who winds up in the weakest position.
The Au Pair Center was set up to help au pair and advise them of their rights, and all are encouraged to report violations. “Not everyone dares to do so, because they’re afraid they’ve broken the rules themselves (by going along with their families’ demands),” Hebnes said. Many au pair are also more keen on earning money to send home to their own poor families than in learning about Norwegian culture. Hebnes said the center nonetheless sees “many cases that absolutely should be reported (to authorities, either at UDI or the police).”
Host families in Norway, often headed by affluent parents with high-level jobs or even working as diplomats at local embassies, have wound up in court over what UDI considers serious abuse of the system. Embassy personnel can generally claim diplomatic immunity, but in one case, a millionaire Norwegian shipbroker was charged with violating the rules by having two au pair in his home, paying them the equivalent of just NOK 41 an hour and expecting them to work around 11 hours a day in his home. He ultimately confessed and apologized publicly.