There were tears at the airport. And some hugging. And promises to keep in touch. Our beloved au pair of one year was returning to Germany to begin her university career, and appeared even more distressed than we were. But not all au pair stories end with the happy exchange of gifts and moist embraces at Heathrow. Many are forced to flee what is basically a desperate and lonely servitude.
Thousands of young women (and some men) pour into Britain every September to take up jobs as au pairs. Their duties are strictly delineated by the Home Office. They are not allowed to work more than five hours a day, and they cannot be used as full-time childminders. But behind the closed doors of suburbia is a hidden story of misery, misunderstandings and exploitation.
Eva Novakova, 20, came to London from the Czech Republic in June this year, hoping to improve her English and learn about a different culture and way of life. She found herself working eight hours a day for a north London family, looking after two small boys, aged one and three, at the beginning and end of the day, and in between doing all the housework, washing and ironing.
Her cleaning skills were constantly criticised. She was expected to rise at 5.30am with the baby, who she then took into her own bed. She was also responsible for the children every weekend until 10.30am, in contravention of Home Office guidelines that au pairs have two whole days off a week, and was expected to return home every night, including weekends, by midnight. For this she was paid £40 a week.
Eva says: “They were very pleasant, very friendly. But when the lady showed me the list of my duties, I went to my room and cried for two hours. They treated me like a servant, like a kid.”
But things got even worse when the mother started to complain that she was eating too much. Eva began buying her own food.
Eventually, urged on by friends, Eva approached Maggie Dyer of the London Au Pair and Nanny Agency, who found her another family.
Dyer says: “Families’ expectations are often unrealistic. They require au pairs to be far more responsible than they are capable of being at that age. And then there are agencies who don’t care, and who send them to families that they know will exploit them.
“You meet girls who have not been paid from month to month, girls who have had to share a room with a child, and food is frequently a problem area.”
Au pairs are generally aged between 19 and 22, and come to Britain to enjoy a gap year between school and starting university or a job. They hope to improve their English, have a good time and take the first steps to independence in the secure environment of a family home. Instead, many find that they are a form of cheap labour, working well over the 25 hours allowed, sometimes in sole charge of several small children, or caring for babies that they are simply too young and inexperienced to cope with.
It is not wholly surprising that many parents jump at the chance of such a cheap form of childcare (about £50 a week). Britain currently has the highest childcare costs in Europe, with a London childminder costing about £5 an hour, or £200 a week full-time, and a nursery costing from £180 a week.
It is the very youthfulness of the “girls” (as the agencies call them) that makes au pairs so vulnerable to exploitation. The trip to Britain is often their first big adventure away from home and they are reluctant to return too soon, tail between legs. They are also reluctant to complain to their agencies about ill-treatment, and many agencies are less than helpful if they do.
Those from the former Eastern Bloc are in even more difficulty as they often feel they cannot return home without the year’s money for which they came. Struggling economies and high unemployment in eastern Europe has lent a new slant to the au pair scenario. Now England, and London in particular, is bursting with women desperate for jobs and willing to put up with hours and conditions that would have western Europeans fleeing back to their families.
The au pairs’ youth also makes it difficult for them to confront employers in a diplomatic and unemotional manner that doesn’t degenerate into a row. Tact and discretion are awkward enough for most of us in our mother tongue; in a foreign language they are a nightmare. So the girls often suffer in silence, but with a long face that often perplexes their exasperated host families.
Lucy Laven, 19, came to England from France last year. One night, the mother of her host family had to leave her alone with the husband and child while she visited family. Speaking from Deauville in Normandy, Lucy says: “It was very direct, very clear that he wanted to have sex. But he was drunk, so I didn’t take it seriously.
“The second time his wife left us alone, it was for a whole week, and it was worse because he wasn’t drunk. He wanted to sleep with me, would come into my room when I was in bed. I couldn’t lock the door. The child was in the next room. It was very upsetting.
“Why didn’t I phone my mother? I didn’t want her to come rushing to fetch me! But I decided that I had to change family.
“His wife was a very nice woman. I couldn’t tell her the truth when I left. It was too awful for her. And my agency didn’t help at all. I had to find my own family.”
But it’s not all cold gruel and a monastic cell in the attic. Some of the misery is less dramatic and perhaps as much a fault of the au pair and agencies as of the employer.
Most au pairs come from families where they are treasured children, where their mother lies awake at night waiting to hear the key in the lock, where their laundry gets done, and where someone cares whether they’re eating enough.
Before they come over, the girls are often led to believe that their role will be like that of “the big sister in the family”. But what host families really want is a cheerful workhorse who will do her own thing and keep out of the way when not on duty. They have children of their own and don’t need an adolescent princess to tend to as well.
And so the girls are often hurt and bewildered by what they perceive as callous indifference on the part of their host families.
Simone Schulz, 23, says that her “English” family has never shown the slightest bit of interest in her. “I’m not integrated into the family at all,” she says. “You expect them to pay some attention to you. But I’m just a cheap nanny. No one talks to you except about what you are doing with the child. They don’t know anything about my background or my experiences or my family.”
Pastor Udo Bauer of the German YMCA in London says: “It’s often a problem with communication. The girls are young and insecure when they arrive, and so are unable to speak frankly to the families about any difficulties. And, in the English way, the families often approach problems in a very polite, roundabout manner, with veiled and hidden hints about transgressions. The girls don’t understand, and are very surprised after three weeks to find themselves on the street.”
But the au pair’s lot is not all misery and misunderstanding, according to Pastor Bauer. “There was a girl who was placed in the awkward position by her host family of having to choose between a Mercedes and a BMW as her car. The family said ‘Since you’re going to have to drive it, you may as well choose it’!”
Some of the names in this article have been changed
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