Norway’s justice ministry is moving forward with an attempted crackdown on Norwegian host families who exploit au pairs, mostly young women who come to Norway for what’s supposed to be a cultural exchange. Many wind up as little more than low-paid household help, and the government is also extending more funding to help both them and their hosts.
State immigration agency UDI (Utlendings-direktoratet), in charge of monitoring the au pair program, contracted earlier this year with humanitarian organization Caritas Norge to serve as an initial counseling service for au pairs and/or their families. The contract allows Caritas to carry on its assistance after the summer holidays and through the end of this year with an option for extension.
A total of 2,214 au pairs were legally registered in Norway at the beginning of this year, according to Caritas, along with several hundred more from EU countries who are not registered. Caritas, which opened its Caritas Au Pair Centers (external link to Caritas’ website) in Oslo, Bergen and Stavanger last August, had already received 950 requests for help by April, indicating the need for a national aid service.
Dealing with ‘conflict situations’
The requests range from general questions about the au pair system to what Caritas calls “potential conflict situations” based on disagreements between au pairs and their hosts regarding pay and working conditions. They’re only supposed to offer a maximum of 30 hours per week of household help, such as child minding or meal preparation, in return for room and board, modest pay and exposure to the Norwegian language and culture.
“We want to be a low-threshold source of help and work towards looking after the au pair system’s goal of cultural exchange,” said Anne Nogva of Caritas. “We want to hinder misunderstandings and abuse of the system.” She noted that Caritas can provide legal assistance, both through its own staff and cooperation with lawyers to guide and support au pair and host families in complex cases.
Several cases in court
There have been several such cases in Norway in recent years, along with repeated calls to reform or even scrap the au pair system. One of the biggest cases, involving alleged misuse of two au pairs by a wealthy couple in Oslo, was back in court late last month.
Ragnar Horn and his wife Joey Shaista Horn appealed their conviction last year, which included five-month jail terms for each of them and a fine of NOK 372,000 (USD 46,500), on the grounds their punishment is much too severe. Their lawyers, including two of the most prominent in Oslo, argued for full acquittal of their convictions on charges of making false statements and several violations of immigration law, also because some of the activity deemed illegal by the Oslo City Court allegedly exceeded the statute of limitations.
Prosecutors, however, view the case as vital also for setting precedent. While defense lawyers claim the case never should have gone to court, and that fines alone would have been sufficient, prosecutors claim the sentences handed down by the Oslo City Court were important as a matter of principle. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that prosecutor Hans Petter Pedersen Skurdal, who had sought six-month jail terms, claimed in court that it was “important” for judges to react strongly to violations of the au pair system.
DN reported that the appeals court upheld the conviction of the Horns, but reduced their jail sentences from five months to three and their fine to NOK 186,000. The appeals court ruled that four months in jail was appropriate, but gave them a one-month “rebate” because of the lengthy amount of time it took for their case to be considered.
Their lawyers, still arguing for full acquittal, said they would be appealing the Horns’ convictions and sentences to Norway’s Supreme Court.
Tougher rules due this autumn
Experts believe only a minority of Norwegian host families treat their au pair badly, and a majority in Parliament agreed last year to maintain Norway’s au pair program, but with changes. The justice ministry now proposes, on demands from Parliament, that families who have abused the system never be allowed to have au pairs again.
“I’m glad the Parliament forced the Conservatives and Progress Party to take the rights of au pairs more seriously,” Kirsti Bergstø, a Member of Parliament for the Socialist Left Party, told news bureau NTB. Her party wanted to scrap the program, but “as long as the program stands, this proposal will be important to ensure more safety and security for the au pairs.”
At present, offending au pair hosts are only temporarily banned from having au pairs in their homes. The proposal for a permanent ban is out for hearing until August 6, and expected to win majority support when Parliament reopens this fall.