In Denmark, au pairs risk abuse in name of "cultural exchange"
Thomson Reuters Foundation
COPENHAGEN: Dressed in a red-and-black lumberjack shirt, jeans and sneakers, she looked more like 16 than her actual age of 19.
The petite au pair wrung her hands as the policeman took her statement.
"He didn't rape me, but he kept saying he wanted to have physical relations with me and wanted to kiss me," she said. "That's still wrong, isn't it?"
"Of course it is," the policeman said.
The young Nepali woman had come to Denmark to live with a host family as an au pair through a scheme billed as a cultural exchange programme.
Common in Europe, such programmes allow young people, usually women, to immerse themselves in an overseas culture while helping with child care in exchange for food, accommodation and a modest allowance.
In Denmark, rights groups say inadequate protections leave au pairs vulnerable to labour exploitation and sexual harassment.
For the woman in the red flannel shirt, who declined to be identified, problems had started right from the beginning.
When her host father met her at the airport, he held her hand, telling her "this is how Europeans are". When he sent her text messages asking to visit her room late at night, she wanted a way out.
Another au pair told her she could leave her host family and look for another, but she worried about not finding one immediately since it would mean having to fly back to Nepal, penniless and with debts.
She had paid a broker there $6,000 to find her host family. "He created a Skype account and pretended he was me. He arranged everything. The Nepali au pairs I've talked to here all paid between $4,000 and $6,000 to their brokers."
With the help of the Au Pair Network, a consortium of labour and religious support groups funded by the Danish government, she found the courage to go to the police, who are now investigating.
"Au pair" is French for "on equal terms". The earliest programmes in Europe date back to the years right after World War Two when it was one of the few ways young women could travel abroad and earn cash.
In 1969, the Council of Europe adopted protocols to standardise conditions governing the placement of au pairs.
Rules vary slightly by country. In Denmark, au pairs must be unmarried and aged 18-29. They live with host families and are supposed to do "light household chores" for no more than 30 hours a week, giving them time to immerse themselves in language and culture.
In exchange, they get a $600 monthly allowance and free accommodation.
The reality is that many end up working as de facto domestic servants, vulnerable to sexual harassment or worse, support groups said.
Reports of abuse and maltreatment prompted the Philippines, the biggest source of au pairs to Denmark and Norway, to ban participation in the programme in 1998.
Still the au pairs came.
Denmark and Norway continued to issue au pair visas. Interviews with former Filipino au pairs revealed that many allegedly bribed Philippine airport officials called "escorts" with as much as $500 to clear them through immigration.
Others arrived on tourist visas and changed them to au pair visas once they found host families.
The Philippines lifted its ban in 2012 when it forged agreements with 13 countries introducing protections such as seminars to inform young people of their rights and closer monitoring of allegations of abuse.
Those European countries were Denmark, Norway, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Iceland, Austria, Finland and Italy.
The latest data from the Danish Immigration Service shows that more than 80 percent of the 2,000 au pairs who come to Denmark on average each year are from the Philippines. The rest are from emerging economies like Nepal, other European Union countries and the United States.
"On paper, it is a cultural exchange but in practice it is more of a domestic worker programme," said Jean Gocotano, spokesperson for the Au Pair Network. "Some host families even say they prefer an au pair with domestic work experience."
For many Filipino women, being an au pair in Europe is still better than being a domestic worker in the Middle East or Hong Kong where they earn between $400 and $500 a month.
"The cultural programme was not my priority," said Imee, who came to Denmark from the Philippines as an au pair in 2011. "I just wanted to leave. I was tired of my low-paying job packing pineapples."
Imee, who declined to give her full name, paid a "consultant" in the Philippines $1,500 in "research fees", which included looking for a host family, preparing her papers and training her to answer interview questions at the embassy.
"Applicants wouldn't be able to get that amount of money easily," said Hans Cacdac, head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency. "They will have to borrow that from someone else."
In its Global Wage Report for 2014/2015, the International Labour Organization pegs the average monthly wage in the Philippines at $202.
According to the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), the government agency that oversees the au pair programme, charging fees is classified as illegal recruitment.
"The au pair programme is not an employment scheme," said Ivy Miravelles, officer in charge of the CFO migration integration division. "However, it cannot be denied that there may be entities that abuse the programme and mislead participants for financial gain."
A 2014 survey of 90 au pairs by Radio 24 SYV Denmark showed that around 30 percent had paid someone between $225 and $1,000 to get them to Europe.
"Many of the au pairs come here already indebted, making them more pressured to make the host family relationship work," said Andreas Riis, au pair coordinator of Caritas Denmark, one of three support organisations that make up the Au Pair Network.
Helle Stenum, a researcher at Denmark's University of Roskilde and author of several books on the au pair programme, said "the fact that your residence permit is tied to your employer is a well-known trap for the labour market".
Lawmaker Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, a member of Denmark's far-left Red Green Alliance, was also critical.
"Au pairs have no rights when they get fired," she said. "They have no protections under Danish labour law because it is not considered work."
Another lawmaker, Merette Riisager of the Danish Liberal Alliance, defended the programme.
"It provides economic and cultural benefits to women who would normally not have the means," she said.
The Au Pair Network is now handling 166 cases and complaints, most of which are claims for unpaid wages.
"We have to acknowledge that the programme is being misused on both sides, with the au pairs at more of a disadvantage," said Riis from Caritas Denmark.
"We need to end the programme, or change it to one that has stronger labour protections for au pairs."
Research for this story was supported by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.