New Labour Minister Hadia Tajik is keen to scrap the country’s long-criticized “au pair” system, on the grounds it exploits young people from abroad who work in Norwegian homes. The government has now proposed phasing out the system entirely, and seems likely to win majority support in the Norwegian Parliament.
The au pair system is supposed to be a form of cultural exchange, in which young foreigners can spend up to two years as an “au pair” in Norway, living on equal footing with a Norwegian family and learning the Norwegian language.
Applicants between the ages of 18 and 30 must live in a home where Norwegian is spoken and be able to take part in Norwegian language classes and activities. The host family must also “give the au pair a minimum of NOK 5,900 per month pre-tax as pocket money/salary” and “pay a minimum of NOK 8,850 for the au pair’s Norwegian course and study materials,” according to Norwegian immigration agency UDI.
In return, the so-called au pair can be expected to perform what immigration agency UDI describes as “light housework” that also can include child care.
It’s the housework that’s caused most of the problems over the years, especially recently. Affluent Norwegian families, in which both parents usually work outside the home, have been accused of using the au pair system to acquire relatively cheap maid service and nanny service, and one couple was even sentenced to jail. UDI has confirmed that fully 89 percent of au pair in Norway in 2020 were from the Philippines, the vast majority of them young women. Many of them left families of their own in order to live for free in a Norwegian home and earn money to send home.
There has been an alarming number of cases of both au pair abuse and exploitation, with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reporting last month that UDI recently banned a record number of 45 families from using the au pair system. That compared to nine families being kicked out of the program in 2019, even though exploitation has been a problem for years before that.
With many au pairs caught in Norway during the Corona crisis, and even subjected to some families’ own strict infection control measures, there’s also been more pressure to work in their hosts’ homes. DN reported that Caritas, the Catholic Church’s emergency aid organization, received 1,890 complaints last year and followed up 60 au pairs who worked under difficult conditions at their host families. Complaints were up by nearly 700 compared to 2019, and mostly involved limits on their personal freedom and socializing, while others were asked to work far more than the limit of 30 hours a week in the home, and to perform tasks like washing windows in addition to cleaning the house, shopping for food, preparing meals and cleaning up.
While au pairs’ monthly pay was raised in 2019, so was the fee to move to another host family, from NOK 3,100 to NOK 8,400, nearly two months worth of their net pay. A Caritas spokesperson stressed, however, that the increase in those banned from the system doesn’t necessarily reflect an increase in exploitation, rather that au pairs are now better informed of their rights and UDI’s systems. She added that only 3 percent of the complaints handled serious problems, most of which were worked out.
Norwegian labour unions, however, have long referred to the au pair system as “a form of modern slavery,” or even “vestkant slavery,” a reference to how most of the au pairs in Norway live in homes on Oslo’s affluent west side or in the western suburb of Bærum. Trade union confederation LO demanded an end to the system in 2017, telling newspaper VG that it had “outplayed its role long ago.” Peggy Hessen Følsvik, who’s now the head of LO, told VG that the au pair system in Norway had become “a system in which many Filipina girls are seriously exploited and without rights. I have no problems saying that we view this as modern slavery that to a large degree is exploited by wealthy families on the west side of the Oslo Fjord.”
The Labour Party, which earlier has voted against scrapping the system, turned against it several years ago. It joined LO in efforts to end the au pair system four years ago, with its deputy leader Hadia Tajik telling VG that “we have now acknowledged that today’s (au pair) system should be removed.” She noted that Labour, along with other parties, had “tried for many years to hinder misuse of the au pair program,” without much success.
Now Labour fully agrees with its government partner the Center Party, which initially proposed ending the system back in 2015. At that time, Center was voted down by Labour, the Conservatives, the Greens and the conservative Progress Party. Then Center ended up siding with the Conservatives in maintaining the system, only to change its mind again.
Last month, Labour and Center included a proposal to actually phase out the au pair system in their new coalition government platform. The Socialist Left Party (SV) is expected to go along, since it has long wanted to end the system. The government would then have a majority, strengthened by other parties, especially on the left-side of Norwegian politics, that may support the proposal as well.
Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized in favour of the proposal, calling it “sensible” and one of the “most clear and concrete” proposals in the entire government platform. It noted how the au pair system has changed greatly since it began in the 1960s, when young Norwegian women took part and traveled to homes in France, Great Britain and other countries to learn foreign languages. Now hardly any Norwegians take part in the program and after the pandemic, less than 1,000 au pair are left in Norway. UDI reported more than 3,000 before the Corona crisis began.
While many au pair and their families are happy with the program, “its been misused time and time again,” Aftenposten editorialized. “30 hours have become 60 … and the worst cases have landed in court. There’s also fear that many cases (of abuse and exploitation) go unreported. Au pairs can be afraid to complain or contact UDI, for fear they’ll lose their residence permission.”
Not everyone is happy with the looming end of the program. Business news service E24 reported this week on families living far from Oslo who’ve had au pairs from Ecuador, Peru and Spain, some of whom have opted to remain on their own in Norway. “We’re probably the stereotypical family who wanted some extra help and wanted to give young people an opportunity to live abroad and learn a foreign language,” Monica Brandsøy Lystad of Gloppen in the mountains of Nordfjord told E24. “We’ve had very good experience with the program, but have been careful about work hours and that our au pairs feel like part of the family.” She and her husband both work and also have a small farm. Their au pairs have become like “big sisters” in the family, she said.
Anna P Sætereie, meanwhile, said the au pair system “saved” her when she became a single mother. She had no family nearby to help and enjoyed having an au pair for four months. Now it seems those exploiting the system have ruined it for others.
“I was stunned when I heard the system will be phased out,” Sætereie told E24. “I think it’s sad.”