Each year, some 600 au pairs come from abroad to work for families in Switzerland, through agencies or on their own. When their work terms are taken advantage of, deciding whether to fight back lands them in a Catch-22 situation.
Working gruelling 13 to 15-hour days doing housework, chores and childcare, plus having to get up in the middle of the night to care for the small children: that’s the story Jenny* told swissinfo.ch. Jenny is an au pair from the Philippines – the nationality making up the largest single group of au pairs in Switzerland.
According to Swiss law, au pairs may work no more than 30 hours per week, at five or six hours per day depending on how the work is distributed.
Heidi Konrad, who works for Pro Filia, the largest au pair agency in Switzerland, says she has seen numerous cases of au pair work terms not being followed.
And Ruth Derrer of the Swiss Federation of Employers agrees it’s a problem, although it’s impossible to quantify how many cases like this exist because there’s no way to know exactly what goes on in every household. But she says things get especially difficult for au pairs who end up getting used as maids because they’re not really considered to be in a formal employment situation as far as the authorities are concerned, making oversight difficult.
Switzerland’s au pair programme is primarily intended to be a cultural exchange – canton Zurich’s labour office, for example, writes on its website that au pairs are intended to come to Switzerland “to improve professional skills and to deepen their general education within the framework of cultural exchange”.
To encourage such an exchange, all au pairs must take a language course and may not stay with a family that speaks his or her native language.
Au pairs from countries outside the European Union can only come to Switzerland through a registered au pair agency; last year, 332 au pairs came through such agencies.
Lisa*, a woman who has attended German class with many Filipino au pairs and became a sort of mentor to them, told swissinfo.ch that only one of the dozen-or-so au pairs she’s met has worked the permitted 30 hours per week – the rest worked far more, often cleaning houses from top to bottom even though they were promised at recruitment events in the Philippines that they would only be caring for a child and doing some light housework for five hours a day.
But Konrad says that when it comes to doing something about it, it’s the au pair who has to be willing to speak up, or nothing changes.
“[The au pairs] come tell me, I have had to work too much and have to get up in the middle of the night to look after the family’s child because the mother doesn’t want to get up – that’s not allowed – and then I say, I’ll look into it. But they don’t want me to.”
Why not? Usually, it’s because they fear the consequences: being sent home before their contract ends.
“I don’t want to end up on the streets or face shame and go back to the Philippines right away,” says Anna*, another Filipino au pair in Switzerland, explaining why she won’t say anything about being overworked.
Anna and most other au pairs from the Philippines – as well as many others from so-called “third countries” outside the European Union and EFTA nations – send much of the money they make back to their families in their homeland.
Jenny did end up speaking to her agency about her situation, but the results weren’t what she’d hoped for. “I went to the agency and said I could not manage everything, and they said I should go back to the Philippines,” she said. “I was hoping to be assigned to a new family.”
Once the agency said it couldn’t work things out with the family, Jenny was sent home within 48 hours.
According to the Federal Migration Office, au pairs do not have the automatic legal right to be re-assigned to a new family if things don’t go well; their work permit, category ‘L’, generally doesn’t allow for a job change unless the agency petitions the cantonal migration authorities.
Manuela Schatzmann, who runs the Perfect Way au pair agency, says many agencies only bother to petition for “exceptional cases” and automatically send the au pairs home if there’s a problem.
For her part, Konrad says that in some cases, she has been able to assign au pairs from outside the EU to new families if their work contract is being abused – but the sooner the switch is made, the better, since the au pair may only stay in Switzerland a maximum of 12 months.
“If they have already been here five months, it’s really hard to find a new family – it takes another two months until the new permit arrives,” she says. “And there are a lot of fees for all those permits.”
“That’s the difficult thing about it: if the family doesn’t follow the work guidelines, I make note of it and report it, but at the end of the day, if the family fires the au pair, their only option is to go home.”
Employing an au pair
A family in Switzerland wanting to employ an au pair from a country outside the European Union must work with one of the placement agencies recognised by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (see “au pair resources” box)
The family must fill out paperwork detailing their home situation, what languages they speak and what sort of preferences they have for an au pair, among other details (see resources box). The agency then matches the family with an au pair seeking employment and begins the process of securing a visa with the Federal Migration Office. According to Heidi Konrad of the Pro Filia placement agency, the visa approval can take anywhere from two weeks to three months.
Costs (based on canton Zurich estimates)
Visa processing, agency fees for finding au pair: CHF1,400
Monthly stipend: CHF700 to CHF800 depending on family size and au pair’s age
Remaining monthly costs (pension, health insurance, language course, taxes): CHF1,500
Visa and travel costs
(usually paid by au pair, sometimes by family): CHF50 to CHF500 for visa, CHF200 to CHF2,000 for travel
According to Konrad, cultural experiences usually define whether an au pair is willing to stand up and say that the terms of the work contract aren’t being met. For example, she says those from the Philippines tend to be more “submissive” and hesitant to speak out, while Eastern Europeans and Russians will defend themselves – “almost too much sometimes” – against any perceived injustice.
In extreme cases, the most hesitant au pairs are so afraid to come forward at the first signs of trouble that they ultimately end up in situations they can’t handle when the family suddenly turns them out on the street after a conflict, for example.
Schatzmann says she has encountered and even taken in au pairs whose assigned agencies never gave them a point of contact at the agency or any number to call in case of trouble.
“I’m meeting with a girl this weekend who came from another agency, she works 15 hours a day, seven days a week,” Schatzmann says. “She has no one to turn to, she is completely alone. She can’t go read any laws in English, it’s only available in German. She doesn’t know where to go.”
Help and advice
Konrad sees that problem too, but more among au pairs who come on their own from the EU and don’t have agencies assigned to them.
“They can all just come [into Switzerland] completely unprotected,” she says. “It’s a growing problem, we have more and more EU au pairs calling us every day.”
Schatzmann wishes there were a nationwide hotline for all au pairs to call with questions about their rights and work laws. She has even considered starting an organisation with that in mind.
“I think we’re responsible for that as agencies, making sure the girls are doing okay. I think the government sees that too, but the requirements are not detailed enough of what we’re supposed to do [as agencies].”
Where can au pairs turn?
The agency that brought the au pair to Switzerland is generally the first point of contact for any problems or concerns.
Counselling offices for immigrants: Together with churches and nonprofits, many cantons operate centres for migrants to contact with questions or concerns. (see link box)
Cantonal labour offices are responsible for ensuring that workers in their canton are treated fairly, and they will usually respond to reports of au pair mistreatment even though au pairs are not considered formal “employees” (see link box)
Derrer places the responsibility for au pairs’ well-being firmly on agencies’ shoulders and she agrees more could be done on their part to standardise and ensure that au pairs know their rights.
“It’s a complete illusion that a young woman from a foreign country could go through the process of figuring out who she should turn to. She knows that if she contacts the labour authorities then it’s more or less the end of her stay in Switzerland.”
“The au pairs have to go to language classes, so you could encourage them to speak about it at school and see how it is for other girls, and organise it so that they know their rights and have a place where they can talk about it.”
All agencies that place au pairs from countries outside Switzerland must get operating permits from both the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and the department of employment in the canton where they're headquartered, meeting certain requirements (see link box).
However, after the initial checks for issuing the permit, Konrad says no authorities have been by to check on her agency’s operations in 12 years – although she knows of younger agencies that have experienced checks quite frequently early on.
In canton Zurich, for example, where seven of Switzerland’s 66 au pair recruitment agencies are headquartered and where many au pairs are placed, controlling these agencies is a big job. The labour inspection office is responsible for overseeing them.
“Because of the circa 1,700 companies we oversee and the resources we have, we only go check if there is an incident reported to us,” says Can Arikan of the canton’s labour and economics office. “We don’t carry out active or random checks."
Ultimately, Konrad says au pairs need to speak up while their trial period is still in effect, making it more likely they could get re-assigned to new families. And if nothing else, she feels it will keep others from being taken advantage of in the future.
“We have a blacklist of families to whom we won’t issue any more au pairs, but if the au pair doesn’t say anything or stand behind it, then we can’t put families who abuse the work terms on the list,” she points out.
To Derrer, Switzerland’s reputation is at stake.
“It’s in Switzerland’s best interest that the au pairs who come here don’t get taken advantage of,” she says. “It’s the worst kind of advertising if word gets out that you are bringing young women to Switzerland as au pairs and actually using them as maids.”
By Veronica DeVore, swissinfo.ch