Pressure grows on ‘au pair’ program

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UPDATED: A television documentary on the exploitation that often faces foreigners arriving in Norway on “au pair” contracts was setting off more alarms this week over what’s supposed to be a cultural exchange program. The plight of several young women from the Philippines, who ended up as little more than domestic servants and even sex slaves, sparked more calls for tougher government regulation, and Norway’s justice minister promised some response.

Norwegian authorities earlier have said they intended to crack down on the au pair program, to prevent it from turning into a means for busy Norwegian families to obtain cheap household help. While there’s been talk of new laws being introduced, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported little progress on its Brennpunkt documentary program Tuesday, leaving the local Embassy of the Philippines to merely maintain a “blacklist” of Norwegian families known to exploit au pairs, in the hopes they’ll be expelled from the program.

Justice Minister Grete Faremo promised on the floor of the Norwegian Parliament on Wednesday to “closely follow” the situation and indicated she was skeptical about allowing the au pair program to continue. “It’s hanging by a thin thread,” she said in response to a question from opposition politicians. “There are many of us who see that the au pair program has developed from a cultural exchange into a program with many and clear weaknesses. I’m not satisfied.”

Any evidence of human trafficking, Faremo claimed, would be prosecuted. She also said that the government intends to propose a law before the summer recess that would quarantine Norwegians found to misuse the program. That would prevent them from being able to participate in the au pair program.

Unclear liability
Lawyers working with abused au pairs, most of them from the Philippines, have demanded that either Norwegian authorities get serious about monitoring the au pair program or withdraw from it. They continue to describe a system wide open to abuse, that seemingly should be subject to laws against human trafficking and social dumping, but where legal lines remain unclear.

Au pair contracts generally demand that host families welcome the au pair as a family member, pay the cost of Norwegian language classes, provide food and lodging in their own room and NOK 5,000 in monthly spending money. In return, the au pair can perform light household chores and take care of children, but not for more than five hours a day or 30 hours a week.

Instead, Brennpunkt’s program portrayed how many young Filipinas felt forced to work nearly around the clock and were also forced to work in family businesses at no extra pay. In some extreme cases, their so-called “hosts” took away their passports and contracts, gave them long lists of chores to do every day and prevented from leaving the house. In the worst cases, the young women were sexually assaulted by the man of the house.

Ran away
One au pair named “Christy” got help from another au pair in a neighbouring house to run away from her affluent Oslo family and, with the help of legal professionals, has reported them to police and sued for compensation. Lawyers agree that court rulings are needed in the absence of clear laws governing the au pair program.

The family in question declined to be interviewed and would not take part in Brennpunkt’s documentary, which also interviewed au pairs who were happy with their families and the program. A survey indicated, that around 30 percent worked more than the 30 hours allowed each week, that fully 20 percent worked more than eight hours a day, that 10 percent never got a day off and that 40 percent have not attended the Norwegian classes they were promised.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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