Au pairing is always work
2016-04-01 11:19:23 -
Human Rights

Mariaam Bhatti: Tales of a Domestic Worker


I was so dismayed to read a recent opinion piece in The Irish Times by that newspaper’s business editor John McManus. He was writing on the subject of au pairs after a Spanish woman – with the support of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) – won her case in the Labour Court and was awarded €10,000 in unpaid wages. According to McManus, however, calling au pairs workers is somehow ludicrous.

He went on to trivialise the crucial work that is done mostly by women, or considered a woman’s role, which is caring for the home and for children. He turned the struggles some au pairs face when working in isolation behind closed doors in private homes like all other domestic workers: a joke. Quoting him directly he said au pairs “find their way to the MRCI rather than just going home to their mums”.

As a former au pair myself, my first instinct was anger at his sweeping generalisations of au pairs as flighty girls from well-off families who are there to look after them when they get bored with their foreign adventures playing at Mary Poppins. 

But are there really many migrants who can relate to that? Not everyone has the privilege to leave a job anytime, or to travel abroad as they wish. Some people are the only breadwinner in their families, or are putting themselves through education, therefore forced by their circumstances and structural inadequacies to prevent this exploitation. That is not a joke.

I actually sympathise with McManus for his blindness to his own privilege. I wondered if he wrote what he wrote just to stir a conversation, or was it really how he felt about the au pair he claimed preferred baking to doing chores. He would not be out of the ordinary if the latter; many people think as long as they call someone’s job a French name like au pair, as a friend of mine pointed out, they think they can pay anything as little as €100 a week regardless of the number of hours the person works. That is not a joke. That is breaking the law.

On a different but related point, my friend shared an advert posted by a woman looking for an au pair, someone expected to work from 3pm to 8pm Monday to Friday. But there’s more, as they advert went on to specify that the successful applicant “can’t leave the house after 8pm because my husband and I work night shift”. I almost laughed in disbelief; I really had to wonder what this boss lady thought of the hours done after 8pm till she returned home from work. People with children or who have cared for children know that it’s an almost 24/7 job – parents more than anyone.

It reminds me that when I was an au pair, I was expected to work six days a week, 12-14 hours each day, except on the sixth day when I worked eight hours – what my employer hilariously called a ‘half day’. 

In a nutshell, I really don’t understand why John McManus believes it to be so ludicrous to call au pairs workers, because they have always been workers. People who look after the home and care for children for a job are domestic workers. It is not a ‘new’ law. So what is the commotion about? Does it have anything to do with the inconvenience of filing the proper paperwork, perhaps?


Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the Domestic Workers Action Group and Force Labour Action Group of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

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