Exploited and Far from Home, Some Au Pairs Are Mistreated

Working and living abroad as an au pair should be an exciting and rewarding experience for young men and women. It gives them the opportunity to stay with a family while they experience an unfamiliar culture. But this very unfamiliarity – so exciting when the au pairs are warmly received – can also leave them vulnerable to abuse. In March 2002, the German au pair market was liberalized and licensing requirements were all but eliminated for the agencies that place young people in German families. Since then, social aid groups say that over 1,000 businesses that specialize in placing au pairs have emerged, many of which do little to help their young clients sort out matters of insurance, language training, or residency permits. Many au pairs therefore remain ignorant of their rights and have little recourse if they are in any way abused. Aid groups cite the recent suicide of a young Romanian au pair as a case in point. They say that she was but one of a growing number of eastern European women who are exploited as cheap labor and physically abused by their host families. – YaleGlobal

Exploited and Far from Home, Some Au Pairs Are Mistreated

Anna von Münchhausen
Friday, August 15, 2003

Coming as an au pair to Germany is supposed to be a good experience for young foreigners, but it can sometimes turn into a nightmare, as the case of Ramona Radulovici showed.

Radulovici, 21, came to a family with four children in a northern Bavarian village a year ago expecting to do some fairly light cleaning and other household work, perhaps run a few errands, and look after the kids. What she did not expect was a family that, according to prosecutors, was looking for a near-slave who would work 14 hours per day, seven days a week, for one euro ($1.13) per hour.

Within four months the young Romanian, who was allegedly physically abused by her hosts, was clearly desperate. She hanged herself with the rope of a children's swing on Dec. 16, 2002. The parents of the host family have been charged with causing physical injury, fraud and breach of Germany's immigration law.

Radulovici's story does not seem to be an isolated one. She reportedly found her host family on the Internet and came to Germany with no real idea about her rights and duties as an au pair.

Au pairs used to be placed exclusively through agencies that had a concession from the Federal Labor Office, but in March 2002 the market was liberalized so that only an ordinary trading license is required to start placing young women - still 97 percent of all au pairs, by one estimate - and men with German families. Officials estimate that as many as 1,000 businesses are now specializing in what can be a highly profitable placement service. The brokers only need to collect the fee, since they are not required to help their young clients sort out insurance matters, language training or residency permits.

"Scrapping the license requirement was a catastrophe," says Rainer Gansert, the spokesman for the Au Pair Society, which represents about 70 established placement agencies. The Association for International Youth Work, a social aid group affiliated with the Protestant Church and known by its German acronym VJI, backs up this charge, and has warned that increasing numbers of eastern Europeans are being sent as cheap labor into families that are exploiting them and taking advantage of their unfamiliarity in the country.

"Young women who've been lured to Germany with false promises by private agencies are now asking us for help much more often," says VJI spokeswoman Claudia Richter, adding that many of the au pairs tolerate exploitative and abusive situations because things are so difficult at home and they are afraid of being sent back.

Many of the operators of the new placement agencies often do not know anything about the legal implications, immigration and labor law or the requirements pertaining to health and other insurance, says Gansert, adding that their clients include restaurant owners simply looking for cheap labor. Gansert says he has also heard of family fathers who made it clear to the agency that they expected sexual favors from an au pair and yet were not turned down, although he provided no evidence.

The abuses are widespread enough, however, in the view of German parliamentarians, and the parliamentary groups of all the parties represented in the Bundestag recently formulated a joint motion for the "improvement of private placement of au pairs to avoid abuse." The motion, which is not binding in law, includes proposals that German embassies abroad inform potential au pairs about their rights and duties, host families be regularly checked, and special counseling offered to au pairs.

"It isn't enough, but it is all we could accomplish at the present time," said Rita Pawelski, a Christian Democratic Union member of the Bundestag.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2000. GmbH Publishing Group, Germany.

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