The majority of foreign au pairs working in Australia are being asked to do housework on top of their childcare duties by families taking advantage of cheap labor, a new report has found.
The report, “Cultural Exchange or Cheap Housekeeper?” released by researchers at University of Technology Sydney and Macquarie University, found that many households tend to “super-size” au pair tasks, without paying extra for their services.
Co-authors Laurie Berg and Gabrielle Meagher interviewed almost 1,500 au pairs for what they say is the most comprehensive look at au pair working conditions in Australia.
Most of the au pairs surveyed are young women from Europe, including Germany, France and the UK, who went to Australia to experience life there and improve their language skills.
The majority entered on working holiday visas, which allow them to stay with a family for six months, with an option to extend for a further six.
“The demand for au pairing is often explained by Australian families’ need for affordable childcare but the study indicates many families are taking advantage of the large supply of working holiday makers to obtain cheap housekeeping services as well,” Berg said in a statement.
While the standard expectation of an au pair is childcare, only 41% of almost 1,500 respondents said they were expected to do much more. “The tasks undertaken by a clear majority (59%) more closely resembled those of live-in nanny/housekeepers,” the report said.
Only two in five au pairs interviewed reported having signed a written agreement with their host family. One third said they’d been required to move out with little to no notice when their employment had been terminated.
Regardless of negative experiences, the report adds that a “clear majority of participants reported that their expectations for their au pair experience were met or exceeded.” More than 75% would recommend the experience, the report said.
Working for less than minimum wage
Given the opaque nature of the job and its connotations of cultural exchange, the report also found that the participants were often working for less than minimum wage.
Lina, an au pair from Malaysia, told the interviewers she felt she was exploited while working for a family in Melbourne, was underpaid and required to perform housekeeping duties.
Berg said there is no clear guidance from the government on the rights of short-term workers, which creates confusion for au pairs and families about what is expected of them.
“For example, immigration rules consider au pairs to be workers but advice from the Fair Work Ombudsman and ATO (Australian Tax Office) is less clear about exactly when au pairs become employees,” Berg said.
Wendi Aylward, managing director of AIFS Au Pair in Sydney and president of the Cultural Au Pair Association of Australia (CAPAA), a nationwide industry association, told CNN that when she founded her agency she had to look overseas for guidance on the standards to apply, as there was nothing specific to Australia.
She said the “report reflects that there is an urgency now for the government to step in and put clarity around how this type of program works.”
Aylward has been advocating for a special visa for au pairs which would provide better screening of prospective workers and families who are looking for help. The proposed system would allow for government oversight, she said, reducing the risk of exploitation.
“This crosses over a number of different areas of government — immigration, child care, tourism. It will require work, but it’s also time that it’s done. The number of families that want au pairs — we simply can’t meet the demand,” Aylward said.