The Filipina au-pair experience (english)

Interview with: 
Filomenita Mongaya Høgsholm

In the last few years, Northern Europe has seen a boost of au-pairs from the Philippines. Babaylan, an initiative of Philippine women’s groups in Europe, offers support and counselling services while forming alliances with labour unions and criticizing the prevailing media discourse.

migrazine: Statistics from the last years reveal that between 50% and 75% of all au-pairs in Denmark are from the Philippines. [1] Other countries like The Netherlands and Norway also show a boost of numbers of Filipina au-pairs. [2] Why and when did this shift take place?

Filomenita Mongaya Høgsholm: The au-pair institution in Europe was established after World War II to foster understanding among European countries through cultural exchange. Young people, sometimes taking time off between studies, came to live with families from six months to a year in other European countries where the au-pair could learn languages and other skills (like driving a car, etc.).

The coming of Filipina au pairs to Europe accelerated in the new millennium when there was a formal opening for them, as encapsulated and provided for in the EC proposal during the Czech presidency. [3] But they were already coming before, eg. to The Netherlands, though in lesser numbers. So, in the succeeding years, the boom in the arrivals of au-pairs began in earnest, notably in northern Europe (Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and UK), and for Filipinas, in Scandinavia (Denmark and Norway) itself.

A contributing factor is the internet which opens up for direct contact between the au-pairs and the host families. The Philippines is relatively highly IT literate, with a highly educated population who can access the technology. Although owning computers is not the norm because of the expense, internet cafes abound and are very popular. [4]

The Philippine government issued a ban on au-pair visas, which means that Philippine citizens are not allowed to work as au-pairs abroad. Nevertheless, many European countries allow Filipinas to come and to work in households as au-pairs. Is the au-pair system a renewed model of informalized labour migration?

The Philippine ban on deployment of au-pairs was imposed at the end of the 90s after alleged abuses were reported in Sweden by au-pairs there. The reaction of the ambassador to Sweden/Denmark/Norway at that time was to recommend to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Manila that a ban be upheld beginning 1998. And it continues to this day all over Europe except in Norway where there has recently been a bilateral agreement with the Philippine government to lift the ban provided certain requirements (on both sides) were met.

In other words, all European countries that welcome au-pairs officially – except for Norway – are in violation of the Philippine governmental ban. This puts the individual au-pair at a disadvantage before Filipino officials abroad who consider these nationals as violators of a government policy, and therefore not within their protection since officially, there are no agreements between the governments. When an au-pair died in Denmark two years ago, it took many weeks before the body could be repatriated because nobody was responsible, not the Danish family, nor the Danish government. It was the Filipino community who raised the funds helped by the Philippine ambassador who talked to Danish officials who finally found an insurance company to pay for the rest of the air freight.

On the side of the destination countries, the 25–30 hours of child care and household help provided by young people from Third World countries (Africa, Asia, Latin America and CIS/CEE countries) are very cheap labour indeed! Their availability converges with the need of European society to push European women to the forefront of economic, political, social and cultural empowerment. Young women professionals can have it all: they can combine career, extra-curricular commitments and a fulfilling family life, with the help of the state, who ignores the official Philippine government ban on deployment of Filipino citizens as au-pairs. Sweden is the only country in the EU that has respected this ban.

Au-pairs are neither workers nor students, you once described them as “hybrid”. Also, the majority of them are female. Although care/household work has become an acknowledged field of research for feminists, au-pairs do not seem to be getting great attention …

First of all, we have to do with legal migration in the EU context when we are dealing with au- pairs in Europe. Meaning they are “legal” with rights to stay for the duration of their contract. Au- pairs are regularized labour so there cannot be much fuss about this (except on the Philippine side which considers au-pairs as violating the Philippine governmental ban).

Then being “hybrid” between student and domestic worker, there is some glamour left to gild the lily, so to speak, because the actual situation which is 25 to 30 hours of supposedly light work only such as taking care of the baby, cleaning, cooking and washing clothes, shopping for food, tending the garden, etc. still leaves the resourceful au-pair time to study.

There have been known to be some resourceful au-pairs who got further education, even at the Ph.D level (at the Danish Technical University) because after the 30-hour work load, they could still take advantage of the education opportunities which are for free unlike in their country of origin where it is costly. In the case of the Ph.D student, he did it after he finished his au-pair contract and was sponsored by his host family.

There is a saying in Danish that he who lives discreetly enjoys life more deeply – maybe having au-pairs is a good thing, so why not keep such a great secret to yourself? But au-pairs also definitely give any family a sense of status since paying for one, although affordable when there are two incomes, still requires that the family is economically well off.

Regarding the prevailing media discourse, the earliest articles on au-pairs in Denmark focused on the abuse by host families and also on how the recruitment process exposed the au-pairs to exploitation, sometimes by agencies led by co-Filipinos. The sensationalistic approach is an offshoot of a tenet in journalism school to focus on conflicts when reporting the news.
In the welfare state where labour unions are rather strong, as is the case in the Nordic countries, the new trend among young families to have someone do the housework and take care of the children is seen by some on the left wing of the political spectrum as tantamount to modern slavery, and grates at the equality notions of the ordinary Dane. By itself, even without tales of abuse, already an appalling thought for many!
If the journalists then add abuse of the au-pair into the story mix, then one can be sure of getting the mainstream to get swayed emotionally and be on the indignation trail! Lately however, as more knowledge and information on the issue is available and more research is being done, there will hopefully be less and less sensationalism and more facts.

Babaylan Denmark offers a weekly counselling service [5] for au-pairs from the Philippines. What are the most urgent problems for au-pairs in Denmark and what kind of support is mostly needed?

In the last three years of our advocacy in helping the au-pairs – for example, giving orientations and conducting weekly counselling services – we have observed that, because of their young age and Catholic upbringing, the Filipina au-pair finds herself at a disadvantage in the Nordic setting of liberal mores when it comes to sexuality.

We have intensified orientations on sexual and reproductive rights to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions. We also provide financial literacy seminars so they are able to better manage their remittances, so the money they send home can generate jobs, be used for education and building sturdy houses, instead of just being spent on consumer goods and non-essentials.

Besides Babaylan, are there any alliances between the Philippine au-pairs and the Philippine migrant Communities?

Currently, it is only Babaylan Europe and its national platforms (Babaylan Denmark is particularly active and innovative – eg. teaming up with other sectors like labour unions, the medical professions etc.) that have not only pioneered the work concerning au-pairs, already in the 90s. And have continued till today, while expanding the interface and in projects having to do with various aspects and trends of contemporary Filipina migration to Europe, eg. remittances in the context of migration and development, double citizenship when applicable and in general.

Babaylan Denmark, by establishing an au-pair network together with a labour union and a women and development organization, has thus opened up for the other organizations in the community to access and help the au-pairs.

Interview: Vina Yun


Links:

Filipina Au Pair Network
Babaylan Europe
Babylan Denmark


Footnotes:

[1] Source: Babaylan Europe: "Denmark holds open forum on au-pairs

[2] Between 2002 and 2007, Danish resident permits granted to Au Pairs from the Philippines increased over 1.000%, from 124 in 2002 to 1.510 in 2007 (source). In Norway, the total number of Au Pairs increased from 691 in the year 2000 to 2.860 in 2008, 2.090 (73,08%) of them were Filipina Au Pairs (source).

[3] Proposal for an amendment of Council Directive 114/2004/EC (pdf, 62 kB) on the conditions of admission of third-country nationals for the purpose of studies, pupil exchange, unremunerated training or voluntary service by remunerated trainees and au-pairs, who are not covered by a common legal provision.

[4] Filomenita Mongaya Høgsholm: "In 2000 a sitting President, Joseph Estrada, was ousted through popular mobilization called People Power. The population used texting with mobil phones to coordinate their actions. The country is an archipelago of 7.000 islands, so by texting/sms, which is very cheap, the interisland communication was swift and effective. And peaceful!"

[5] In cooperation with the Danish Women Council (Kvinderadet)