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– The au pair scheme works well

Natalia Ravn-Christensen of Energy Au Pair thinks the au pair scheme functions extremely well and that most au pairs are very satisfied with both their wages and their host families in Norway. – It’s a shame the media only focuses on the negatives, she says.

Alongside Atlantis Utveksling, Energy Au Pair is the only agency for au pairs and host families in Norway. The two agencies together bring in around 20% of the au pairs in the country; the remaining 80% arrive via private adverts.

Energy Au Pair leader, Natalia Ravn-Christensen, first began on an informal basis, placing female friends from her home country of Ukraine as au pairs in Denmark, where she previously lived. She later developed this activity into Energy Au Pair, currently based in Oslo.

Au pairs, who can register free of charge with Energy Au Pair, undergo thorough telephone interviews and have their papers and references carefully checked.

Ravn-Christensen also places Filipino au pairs coming directly from the Philippines, after a change in legislation made this possible in July 2010. She does not try to hide the fact that this group is the one most sought after. All in all, Ravn-Christensen supplies Norwegian families with au pairs from 39 countries, between 30 and 40 each month.

– Filipinos speak good English and are used to working in other countries. They are Christian, have a good sense of humour and many similarities with Norwegians in their way of being, she says. For many of them, Norway is the last stop on a round-trip of Europe as an au pair.

– They get good wages here and are treated well, Ravn-Christensen assures us. She says that many Filipinos find Norway a paradise where they are treated as equals for the first time.

– Many people think au pairs don’t earn very much, but for them it is a lot of money. A teacher in Ukraine earns 1200 kroner a month. Here she gets 5000 kroner before tax, as well as food and lodging, for a 30-hour week. That’s not poorly paid, Ravn-Christensen says.

She thinks it is good that politicians are opening the Au Pair Center and acting rather than just talking or rejecting the au pair scheme altogether.

A kind of development aid

Ravn-Christensen is critical of those who criticise the au pair scheme. She thinks many au pairs get more than they expect, both where money is concerned and what they learn about other things through being in Norway.

– Many of those coming from poorer parts of the world get to learn about democracy in Norway and to see that things function without corruption; they pay tax, see children using computers and enjoy great freedom; they are often placed in resourceful families full of respect and equality. This is knowledge from inside a society, and this they take home with them.  There they will no longer tolerate injustice, Ravn-Christensen believes. She says that many change their political views and social circles when they return with experiences from abroad.

- I sincerely feel that the au pair scheme contributes to something positive. Actually, it’s a kind of development aid, where people are allowed to develop themselves and earn money. I think the current regulations are generally pretty good and protect au pairs well, Ravn-Christensen says.

She thinks that the scheme is by no means out of date, as critics claim.

That it’s dark in Norway, that many become homesick to start with and that living at one’s employer’s can create problems, are just things you have to go through, she says.

– Many want to stay on after they have finished as au pairs. Unfortunately, the regulations are very strict where further residence permits are concerned, she says.

The au pairs she brings in from Ukraine are often highly educated. It is easier for this group to get their education approved, to look for a job and stay, not least because they have learnt Norwegian during their stay as au pairs.

– Many of those who are critical of the au pair scheme, such as JURK or the police, only see the cases where things go wrong. I get lots of positive feedback both from au pairs and host families, says Ravn-Christensen, who thinks it a shame that the media has so little focus on positive experiences.

– Some families don’t want to tell others that they have an au pair because of the poor reputation. I think that’s a shame because lots of au pairs, not least those from the Philippines, take great pride in their work, she says.

She sees that Norwegian work-life, with offshore jobs and unsocial hours, coupled with modern family patterns with only one parent, means that many have a real need for help at home.

– We must be realistic. Many of these people couldn’t afford to have a domestic worker whereas they do have the opportunity to have an au pair, she says.

Host families must think carefully through their needs

– I have a number of regular customers who come back to me for a new au pair. It is important that the right au pair meets the right family and I ask both parties detailed questions so I can come up with a good match, she tells us.

The au pair, for example, must say if she can swim, cycle, drive a car, is used to dogs, if she wants to live in a small or large town and if she knows anyone here. If she does, she’ll often get a host family near her friend.

– Au pairs have different personalities and different desires. I try to take this into consideration. Some want to be with their family a lot; others want to be with friends. The same applies to the host family: Some maybe want to spend a lot of time with her while others have had many au pairs before and are not quite as eager to talk about Norway for the fifth time, Ravn- Christensen says. She also interviews host families and tells us that many of them take an enormous amount of time choosing an au pair.

She also says that some families find that having an au pair is not suitable for them; they just can’t deal with having a stranger in the house.

– This is something for host families to consider very carefully beforehand, Ravn- Christensen thinks.

Important meeting place

Energy Au Pair organises social gatherings for its au pairs a couple of times a year. Here they talk about what works and the kinds of challenges they face.

– If anyone has problems with their host families, we try to mediate between the two parties. Common questions are about who pays for what in various situations, the importance of having days off for her own culture’s festive occasions and information if someone wants to sack their au pair or she wants to change family, Ravn-Christensen says. She also says it’s difficult to relate to the 30-hours au pairs are supposed to work because if both parties are satisfied, they seldom count the hours.

– Families who are very busy and who get help from their au pair to deal with the pressure of time are often very glad to have her, and happy to tell you so. Many families want an au pair so they can have more time for each other Ravn-Christensen says.

23.04.2013 | Torunn Aaslund