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Challenging thoughts of equality

– Norwegians are not sufficiently aware as to how power influences the relationship between au pair and host family, says Per Ranestad from Norwegian People’s Aid.

– In Norway we are used to a social-democratic culture of equality and, in consequence, not at all aware of paternalism between different persons, says Per Ranestad, head of democratisation work and civil society issues in Norwegian People’s Aid.

In Norway, it has been a very long time since the disempowerment of working people through the employer’s position was challenged and changed by the labour movement to a contractual relationship in working life.

– Many au pairs come from cultures with strong paternalistic characteristics. Many expect the relationship to the host family to carry the stamp of care and control from the host family’s side with a corresponding lack of independence for the au pair, Ranestad thinks.

These differences in culture and expectations challenge both parties.

New global workers

– The differences between host family and au pair may play themselves out in concrete situations in everyday life. Host families must always question the extent to which their actions promote guardian-like power and control over the other, or democratic values concerning rights and independence, Ranestad says. He believes that many host families to au pairs from poor countries think they are being kind and do not see that what they are doing may contribute to the subordination of the au pair.

– They should rather think of her as a person with rights, says Ranestad.

When, as in some cases, the au pair scheme slides into a kind of domestic service, he thinks that this challenges the egalitarian and democratic aspects of our culture. Many au pairs come from poor backgrounds and expect the status of a servant. This also does something with the children in the host family who become used to having a helper in the house, he thinks. 

It is several generations ago since we had domestic servants in Norway and there are still not very many who have au pairs, but the numbers are going to increase along with the use of domestic cleaners and cheap building workers. All this has to be seen as linked, says Ranestad.

Similarities with domestic workers in other countries

The new development of au pairs from poor countries coming to Norway reminds him of situations he previously worked with in South America, such as when Norwegian People’s Aid supported the domestic workers’ union in Chile in the 1990s:

– This group is difficult to organise since they do not have a place where they work together but all work by themselves in various households, he tells us. In Chile, the trade union premises became a social gathering point on days off while attempts were made to influence the authorities into introducing legislation to secure basic rights. The organisation also gained an overview of domestic workers’ working conditions, not least by means of having students go round with research questionnaires during the day when one knew the domestic workers would be alone.

– Perhaps this could also be a way of thinking when seeking to understand and support au pairs in Norway, he suggests.

It is becoming increasingly common for people to purchase help in the home. This makes it the more challenging to influence attitudes and secure proper treatment.

The solution is to formalise the scheme

In order to avoid paternalism, Ranestad believes that it is necessary to formalise the conditions that exist between  au pair and host family to a much greater extent than is currently the case. He wants to create good meeting points, to get au pairs to speak out, through research studies, for example, such as that in Chile. The purpose should be to help au pairs become unionised and to negotiate good contracts.

A sound contract is a prerequisite of au pairs experiencing good conditions here. Informal arrangements make it more difficult. This is not made any easier by au pairs themselves wanting informal arrangements, simply because it works for the person concerned, he says.

– That’s why places where people can come together and talk need to be set up, says Ranestad, who hopes the Au Pair Center will be able to contribute to precisely this aspect.

It is difficult but will be very good if we can manage to help au pairs become unionised. For us in Norway, trade unions are what provide us with good contracts with employers. In many other countries, the impression is given that trade unionism involves barricades and strikes, without necessarily achieving any rights. This means there is a need for information and a change in attitude in those who come here, Ranestad says.

23.04.2013 | Torunn Aaslund