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Calls for Change: Denmark’s Au Pair Program Under Scrutiny as Complaints Soar and Exploitation Concerns Mount

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The number of cases where au pairs are violated and exploited has more than doubled in two years. The trend indicates that it is necessary to change the au pair program, according to the sector chairman in the trade union FOA to the politicians in Christiansborg.

Abuse, psychological violence, excessive working hours, and overall gross exploitation of their labor – that’s what au pairs are subjected to by their Danish host families. Unfortunately, it is happening more and more frequently, and au pairs are getting trapped in these situations. This is evident from the latest report on au pairs’ complaints to the organization Au Pair Network, of which FOA is a part.

-“They are being violated, shouted at, underpaid, and severely exploited by their host families. The trend clearly indicates that significant changes are needed in the au pair program, and it is urgent,” says Pia Heidi Nielsen, the chairman of the Food and Service sector in FOA, which organizes au pairs.

In just two years, the number of complaints to the Au Pair Network has more than doubled, from 962 complaints in 2020 to 2,293 complaints in 2022. This increase occurred while the number of au pairs in Denmark remained almost stagnant, with 682 au pairs in 2020 and 678 in 2022.

According to the newspaper Politiken, there are currently 35 people in Denmark who have a two-year ban from having an au pair due to gross misuse of the program, and over the past five years, FOA has dealt with 238 cases of abuse of the au pair scheme.

-“I’m afraid this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many au pairs are afraid to report their host families because the families have control over their work and residence permits. If an au pair has a conflict with the family, she fears being sent home, as the families can terminate their stay almost overnight. It’s completely unfair,” says Pia Heidi Nielsen.

She points out that other parts of the rules are completely outdated as well.

-“Why do we have rules that the employees cannot be married, must be between 18 and 30 years old, and must not have children?” Pia Heidi Nielsen asks rhetorically.

According to FOA, au pairs perform regular work. However, instead of receiving a salary, an au pair currently receives 4,700 DKK in pocket money and can work a maximum of 30 hours per week – and this is a clear reason, according to FOA, why the au pair program needs to be changed.

-“We need to stop fooling ourselves that the au pair program is about cultural exchange, as it was originally intended. An extensive evaluation of the au pair program in 2019 concluded that the host families’ motivation for having an au pair is to get help with household chores and childcare, and for au pairs, it is primarily about earning money,” says Pia Heidi Nielsen, continuing:

-“When it comes to real paid work, proper wages and working conditions are essential; otherwise, it’s social dumping of foreign women. It’s unacceptable. Therefore, we need to change the current program into a labor market program. In this case, we can look to FOA’s collective agreements for employees with similar work, such as assistant pedagogues and house assistants.”

The downsides of the au pair program led Norway to completely abolish it in late March. However, Pia Heidi Nielsen strongly warns against closing the program without providing an alternative:

-“We know that the demand for this work exists, and the work will still be performed. Without a program, there is no protection for au pairs. It would be a paradise for those who want to exploit vulnerable labor. We also risk seeing more undocumented work if the program is simply abolished. Childcare and cleaning are already areas with plenty of undocumented work,” says Pia Heidi Nielsen, who wants to request a meeting with Minister of Immigration Kaare Dybvad Bek (S) to discuss possibilities for changing the au pair program in Denmark.

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