Q&A: What are the regulations around employing an au pair

It seems au pairs are only lately figuring out their rights to proper pay and conditions. If you employ one, you have an obligation to understand the regulations, writes Caroline O'Doherty.

Q&A: What are the regulations around employing an au pair

Q. What’s this case all about?

A. The Workplace Relations Commission, ie, the employment court, ordered a couple to pay almost €10,000 to their former au pair for breaching her right to proper pay and conditions.

Q. So au pairs have rights?

A. More than might be commonly understood. They are employees, the same as any employee, and their employer — the family they work for— must treat them accordingly.

Q. Specifically, what does that mean?

A. They must be paid at least the statutory minimum wage which is currently €9.15 per hour. They must not have to work more than 48 hours a week — or an average of 48 hours a week over a four-month period. They must receive breaks of at least 15 minutes after a four-and-a-half-hour work period or 30 minutes after six hours. They are entitled to annual leave and to have public holidays off or compensation for working them. Breaks and leave do not have to be paid. And all of this should be included in a written statement of terms and conditions and followed up with written payslips.

Q. Can I still load them up with every task including chimney cleaning, dog whispering, and child taming?

A. The duties you can ask them to perform are very broad but must be agreed in advance and au pairs are entitled to work “in a safe and healthy working environment”, so overloading and unreasonable multitasking are likely to breach that condition.

Q. Right, but can I still make them sleep in the wardrobe and feed them on cereal and water?

A. The aforementioned condition kicks in here too as does their right “to privacy and to pursue personal leisure activities”. That would imply they need their own room and a nutritious diet.

Q. But what about all the freebies they’re getting from us — companionship, conversational English lessons, immersion in an exciting new culture, wifi, unlimited sunshine?

A. If by that you mean A, your toddler; B, your toddler’s babble; and C, your toddler’s TV viewing preferences, then they don’t really class as freebies. You may boast about the wifi if you wish but it’s a bit cheap of you. As for the sunshine, that only applies to Irish au pairs working abroad.

Q. Forgive me, I was thinking of that summer in the south of France when les enfants occupied themselves in le jardin from morning to night and I concentrated on my tan — I mean my French grammar notes. So remind me, why do au pairs come to Ireland?

A. Many are still driven by the desire to learn English. Some are looking for an adventure. For others, it’s the handiest way to combine study and work abroad. For some, it’s a foothold to a new life in foreign country.

Q. How many do we have in Ireland?

A. The Migrant Rights Centre estimates some 20,000 households employ au pairs.

Q. So there’s no shortage of them willing to serve. Why then should I feel pressured to comply with employment legislation?

A. If you don’t, and a case is taken against you, you’ll have to pay up anyway and if you refuse, you’ll be brought before the ordinary courts. Say hi to your neighbour who’s explaining his outdated tax disc while you’re trying to defend labour exploitation.

Q. It’s all sounding a bit cumbersome. Remind me again why I wanted an au pair?

A. Because even if you do pay them their full dues, you can still get around 22 hours work out of an au pair for €150 a week if you provide bed and board. Those hours can be arranged to fill all the gaps that formal childcare won’t cover. A creche costs more, is limited to Monday-Friday, will typically close at 6pm; and charge you a late fee for pickups after that time. That fee can be €5 for every five minutes after closing. Not good if a collision on the road ahead (or collision with the boss in work) detains you for an hour.

Q. When did all these rights and regulations kick in?

A. They were always there — but somehow au pairs slipped through the net. The jobs minister and the Workplace Relations Commission clarified the position in statements last summer and the word has been spreading among au pairs and placement agencies.

Q. I better educate myself so — where can I find details?

A. Go on to www.workplacerelations.ie and search for “domestic workers”. Also the Migrant Rights Centre has information on www.mrci.ie, see “domestic and care work” under the Our Work section.

CASE STUDY: ‘I was exhausted, depressed, and weak’

The Spanish au pair at the centre of the landmark ruling by the Workplace Relations Commission was required to work between 30 and 60 hours a week for just €100.

She had no advance notice of how long she would be expected to work on a given day and no contract setting out her terms and conditions.

She did not know she had any rights and was reluctant to complain because of her emotional attachment to the children in the family.

She only found help from the Migrant Rights Centre through word of mouth. She has since given up au pairing but was pleased with the outcome of the case taken on her behalf.

The family the case was taken against did not appeal the finding and the award of €9,229 — equivalent to more than 1,000 hours worked — has been paid to her. These are her words: “When I arrived at the Migrant Rights Centre I was exhausted, depressed, and weak. It has been a long process, and many people there worked on my case; finally I have found the reward and respect that I needed.

“Without all those people, this would be impossible. And that is why I want to say to all au pairs: you deserve to be respected, because you have in your care the most precious part of a family, the children. And that is a huge responsibility.

“I felt as though the children were my family, and it is very hard to leave a situation of exploitation when you feel such an enormous love for them. But at last I had to start this process.

“With this judgment I feel respected for my work at last. Through the Migrant Rights Centre and the decision of the Workplace Commission I have been able to obtain respect and credibility. And it is proof of the important work being done by au pairs and domestic workers to get our rights. I would say that it is very important for everyone to become aware of this situation, and I hope that au pairs will no longer be exploited as cheap labour.”

Caroline O’Doherty

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