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First and foremost cultural exchange

When both mother and father have demanding jobs and there is not enough time to look after house, home and children, it may be tempting to get an au pair. What may people do not know is that the scheme is first and foremost to do with cultural exchange. 

(Text: Linn Stalsberg Photo: Werner Anderson)

The thought behind the au pair scheme is that the host family and the au pair learn from each other.

– The au pair is to be like a family member who comes along on holiday if she wants to, who wants to get to know Norway and attend Norwegian classes. In return, the au pair may teach the children English or other languages, songs from her home country or other things that allow the family to become familiar with another culture, says Cathrine Sanden, deputy leader and head of au pair administration at Atlantis Utveksling (Atlantis Exchange).

Atlantis utveksling is a non profit-making foundation that specialises in exchange programmes for young people and adults. The foundation organises au pairs for Norwegian host families and is currently responsible for around 10% of au pairs in Norway.


Atlantis wishes to see a number of changes in current legislation including:

  • All au pairs having to arrive through an organisation, thus imposing a quality control on both au pairs and host families
  • Only approved agencies being allowed to undertake the business of arranging for au pairs, i.e. that licenses are issued and guidelines laid down as to how such activities are to take place
  • Blacklisting or quarantine for host families who abuse the scheme.

– The scheme is not a provider of domestic workers although we are painfully aware that it sometimes functions as precisely that, says Sanden. She has also experienced that some people think of the au pair scheme as a way of helping.

 – Having an au pair is not about helping poor people. If you want to help someone in the Philippines, then send money or join an organisation, she encourages us.

30 hours a week

For many people, a year as an au pair is a free year and offers the opportunity to travel and experience something new. Although cultural exchange is the purpose of the au pair scheme, Cathrine Sanden believes one should not hide the fact that an au pair can be very helpful around the house for families suffering from the pressure of time. And as long as the rules for work-time and leisure time are followed, and as long as the au pair is not asked to look after the children on a full time basis, then all is well. 

– An au pair is to work a maximum of 30 hours a week, taking the children backwards and forwards from school or nursery, for example, and doing light household tasks. Host families who get an au pair through us must offer us evidence that their children have other child-minding arrangements during the day. The point is not for the au pair to look after the children all day, she says.

Safer with an agency

Atlantis endeavours to see to it that au pairs choose to travel through an agency and not through private persons on the internet. This is the same for Norwegian au pairs travelling out and foreign au pairs coming here. As an au pair provider, Atlantis works only with organisations in which they have full confidence. This means safety for everyone involved.

– Au pairs coming to Norway through us have declarations from both police and doctors and at least two references. They have also been through a ‘motivation interview’ and an English test. A Norwegian family wanting an au pair receives 15 to 20 pages of information about each candidate, including school reports an overview of their hobbies and leisure time interests. We can help both host families and au pairs find a good match, says Sanden.

The crucial factor is to have good partner agencies in other countries, but this is not always that simple everywhere. Atlantis no longer arranges for au pairs to come from the Philippines to Norway, for example. After their partner agency in the Philippines closed down, Atlantis has been unable to find a reliable replacement to collaborate with. Sanden tells us that many agencies resemble trafficking agents who see the opportunity of making money from dealing with au pairs.

– Most au pairs from the Philippines come through databases on the internet, and we think this is risky for both host families and au pairs. Other au pairs, unfortunately, arrive through agents who demand substantial payment for their services.            

About lunch-packs and homosexuals

Things function well for most au pairs that come to Norway, but those coming here may have very different backgrounds from which to understand Norway and Norwegian culture and language.

– For example, a 19 year-old German girl who has been to Norway many times on holiday will have a completely different starting point than a 27 year-old from Thailand. That’s why we have put together a starter pack for au pairs. In it we explain a few things about the way we live in Norway, about everything from lunch-packs to homosexuals being able to get married, Sanden explains.

Problems nevertheless sometimes crop up – usually as a result of cultural differences.

– A girl from Peru, for example, may find it demeaning to have to do the vacuum-cleaning as domestic help is common in Peru, even amongst people with very little money. And German au pairs might find washing the bathroom difficult as they view this as a private zone, Sanden tells us.

– A typical problem is that the au pair finds herself isolated, sitting on the internet half the night and the host family being unsure as to what to do. Then we need to step in and give guidance, telling the au pair that such internet use often makes homesickness worse. For a few it means they don’t manage to get up in the morning and deliver the children to school, says Sanden.   

As long as the problems are to do with cross-cultural misunderstandings, most can be solved by taking them through. Sometimes, however, au pairs need help with more serious matters. To help this group, Atlantis maintains a 24-hour emergency line for au pairs, referring those who need legal advice to JURK – legal aid for women, NAV or a lawyer.

Violations of the law

Atlantis arranges for around 200 au pairs to come to Norway every year and maintains a good overview of each and every one of them. But the majority of au pairs come to Norway privately. This is a group that no-one monitors or takes responsibility for.           

– We’ve been wanting a website like this for a long time – a meeting point for au pairs and for everyone working with au pairs. We get lots of enquiries from people who haven’t travelled through us and, although we give advice as best we can, we don’t have the resources to help everyone, says Sanden.

She is aware of a number of ugly cases involving au pairs who have come to Norway through private channels.

– We know of au pairs who have been thrown out by their host family or been sexually harassed. Some have been hired out as domestic workers to neighbours, one was sleeping on the sofa in the lounge and didn’t have her own room, some have been working up to 50 or 60 hours a week. There are a lot more nasty cases than you’d imagine with girls who don’t come through agencies, but most never come to light, says Sanden.

She thinks some families should be blacklisted by the Directorate of Immigration (UDI) but this is not possible owing to protection of privacy regulations. Atlantis hopes this will become possible through a change to legislation in 2013. In the meantime, the foundation maintains its own blacklist of families who do not treat their au pairs sufficiently well.

– Some think they can draw up their own private contract with the au pair where it says she is to work longer hours or perform other duties to those laid down in the regulations. But you can’t change the law with a law of your own. Private agreements are invalid, Sanden confirms.

Grey area in the regulations

Sanden thinks that the current regulations for au pairs are full of grey areas, and Atlantis is working to bring about change in this area.

– One thing, for example, is that the au pair has to have a work permit and the host family becomes her employer. But this is a specific au pair permit which only allows up to 30 hours work a week. Some think the work permit is generally valid but this is simply not the case, Sanden explains.   

In the summer of 2012, it was decided that no au pairs in Norway could have their own children back in their home country. Atlantis approves this move.

– We’ve always had a rule that au pairs can’t have their own children and have fought for such a change in the law. Our goal is to keep to and emphasise the cultural exchange aspect of the scheme and to make things safe for both au pairs and host families, says Cathrine Sanden.

21.12.2012 | Tine Solberg Johansen