Be sure to read the comments! There is some terrific information about how agencies work (or don’t work) in specific countries!
Dear Au Pairs-
I’m writing this letter to you to tell you a cold, difficult truth:
As much as you hope that you did some careful screening of possible host families, and as much as you negotiated and clarified the terms of your arrangement with a host family before starting up as their au pair, the situation you are in has few protections. If things go wrong and your host family violates your agreement with them, resolving the problems will be all up to you.
Many host families — probably most host families — want to do the right thing, and will hold to the terms that they discussed with you. With these families, there will be issues (like the ones we discuss here on AuPairMom all the time) that are part of the normal back and forth in an au pair-host family relationship. With caring, forgiveness, and clarity, these situations can usually be resolved.
Some families will think that they are going to follow the terms of your agreement, but will discover as they go along that what they really want from you is something beyond your agreement. They may ask you to work more hours, work without a schedule, do more cleaning, drive less often for personal use, and so on, outside of what you agreed to at the start. Sometimes, you can bring this issue up with the host parents, they’ll recognize and apologize for going over the lines, and will change their behavior.
Sometimes, however, a host family has little intention of following the rules. They may not know ‘up front’ that they are going to take advantage of you, so they may not be entirely bad people. However, any family that regularly goes beyond the terms of your contract, making you work too much, too often, on the wrong kinds of tasks, and without the personal space and autonomy you bargained for is likely to keep on doing it unless there is a significant penalty to them.
In the USA, au pairs are required to use an approved au pair agency. This requirement, along with clear-cut guidelines for an au pair’s and host family’s responsibilities, is all about protecting you, the au pair, from being exploited by host family. Some agencies in the US have more oversight and make more of a constant effort to check that the contract between the au pair and the host family is being followed, but all agencies have this responsibility.
Without an Agency
When you make arrangements to be someone’s au pair without using an agency, you have very little protection. There is no one but you to enforce the contract if things go bad. As far as I know, there is no one outside of the host family themselves that you can appeal to for help, or even for formal advice. You are on your own.
Here at AuPairMom we get about one email a week from an au pair in Europe or Australia who is working without the support of an agency. She is usually being expected to work far too much, has limited to no use of a car, can’t leave the host family’s house, and/or is having her pocket money withheld for problems she does not think she caused.
When this happens, there is not much that anyone can do for you, except offer you advice about how to stick up for yourself. You have to work it out with your family, and you have to be ready to find somewhere else to au pair or find a way safely home. And, you have to do this on your own.
Because we on AuPairMom are based here in the US, most of the parents (myself included) know every very little about the legal details and options behind au pair arrangements in other countries. Most countries do have some kind of official rules for au pair relationships that people are supposed to follow. It may be that there are government offices you can appeal to. It may be that you have a contact person from a matching service who can help you. If so, that’s great. But our sense is, after getting these emails one after another, that there is very little to protect you if and when a host family steps over the line.
What does this mean for you?
We are not suggesting that you give up on the dream of being an au pair in Europe or Australia. Instead, we have some recommendations for you:
- We encourage you to use an agency if you can. Yes, it costs more money and you need to make sure the agency isn’t taking advantage of you. But, oversight and contact people cost money, so when you use an agency you are actually paying for them to help you in an emergency.
- Do your absolute best to interview a family thoroughly. (Interview their previous au pairs if you can).
- Ask the family for references. Call these references. Even if they are friends of the family and the family is not being straight with you, friends may still find it hard to lie about families that are selfish.
- Have a back up exit plan— a plane ticket home, another place to stay or somewhere go if things get bad.
- At the start of your year, be clear and up front about expectations. Actively manage your orientation.
- Follow up after the first week and have a conversation with your family about what’s working (or not).
- Address issues earlier rather than later to nip problems in the bud.
- Be ready to ‘train’ and inform a new host family of ‘how to have an au pair’ and what’s fair.
- Print out pages from this website and official rules in your host country and give them to your host parents.
- Print out a blank calendar page and ask your host parent to fill it in on Sunday with your expected schedule.
- Manage your family.
- Stick up for yourself from the very beginning.
- Do a good job so that you are always standing on firm ground yourself.
- Save your money.
Finding a great match between a family and an au pair is hard– if you use an agency, your chances of a good match are higher. Still, a lot of it is luck.
If you end up choosing a family that turns out to be untrustworthy, leave. And, keep your sense of adventure— there is likely another family who will treat you right, where you can contribute, and where you can grow.
Beware, though, that an au pair situation without an agency puts all of the responsibility on YOU.
Take charge, and don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.
Parents and au pairs, if you have additional advice and insight– please add it in the comments!
Some examples of emails from au pairs in bad situations, without agencies, outside the USA:
Can you say “exploited” in French? Au Pair asks what to do
Exploited in Italy: What’s the best way to leave my host family?
Au Pair Asks: How can I get my Host Mom to give me a schedule?
If you were an Au Pair: Agency or Website?