Aquino urged to lift au pairs ban in Netherlands

By Dheza Marie Aguilar, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Aug 05 2010 07:25 PM | Updated as of Aug 06 2010 03:25 AM

THE NETHERLANDS - Their stories might be a lingering stigma to the plight of Filipino migrant workers in the Netherlands but their collective woe has been a resounding call to the Philippine government.

With the election of Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino in Malacañang, au pairs (nannies) in the Netherlands hope that, this time, they will be heard.

In 1998, the Philippine government imposed a ban on Filipinas leaving the country as au pairs because of the reported cases of abuse of Filipina au pairs in Sweden. But this did not stop young Pinays from going to European countries under the au pair program.

In fact, the number has actually surged in recent years especially in countries like Denmark and Norway where 75% of au pairs are Filipinos.  

Ideally, the au pair system is aimed at cultural exposure for young women in European countries. But the European Commission also allowed girls from other countries to join the program.

Under the au pair system, participants should only perform light household work. They are entitled to travel and weekend allowances and study of the host family’s language.

In the Netherlands, au pair hiring is allowed for girls between 18 and 25 years old. They are granted a maximum of one year stay.

Unfortunately, for a big number of Filipina au pairs, the system is not working to their advantage.

Cultural exchange or source of abuse?

In principle, the European au pair system is an ideal opportunity for young Filipinas to experience life abroad and learn about other countries’ culture.

But this also opens the possibilities of abuse.

“Amy” (not her real name) came to the Netherlands in 2007 as an au pair. A seasoned overseas Filipino worker who also worked in Taiwan, Amy took her chances in the Netherlands despite being aware of the ban.

The agreement, which she signed, says she must only work 6 hours a day, 4 days a week. When she arrived, her host family made her work for 12 hours a day.

“Ang nasa training namin, light houselad lang ang nakalagay. Pagdating ko dito, 13 hours ang duty, more than pa. Nakalagay sa au pair agreement, 4 days a week, 6 hours a day. Hindi nasunod yon. Mula Monday to Saturday nagtatrabaho ako tapos pag day off pinagtatrabaho ako sa bahay ng kapatid nya, sa office nya,” Amy said.

According to her, most of her batch mates from the same agency were either sent back to the Philippines or escaped their employers because they cannot stand the long working hours.

She said that even the embassy cannot help them because there is no existing agreement between the Philippines and Netherlands for the au pair program.

In the Netherlands, babysitters alone get between 4.5 to 10 euros per hour depending on the experience. An au pair, however, only gets a maximum of 340 euros allowance per month plus pocket money for a holiday.

But while Amy had unfortunate experiences, other girls like Maeve Maquiling found a family that she is happy with. Together with other Filipina au pairs in Smiling Faces au pair agency, Maquiling encourages young Pinays to become an au pair in the Netherlands.

“It is really a great opportunity to come here in the Netherlands to know the culture, the language. It’s a privilege for me so I really grabbed it. I am very thankful to my host family because they are so nice to me, everything goes so smooth here in Holland,” said Maquiling, while happily playing with the children of her host family.

The au pair agency Smiling Faces, where Maquiling was recruited, said that they never got a case like Amy’s.

Evageline Lauren, the Filipino partner for Smiling Faces, said they monitor the schedules of their au pairs all year round to make sure that the agreement in the contracts are being followed and treated fairly.

“If there is any case of abuse, if the au pair will complain to the agency, we have to call the family to straighten things out--that as an au pair, 30 hours of work is only 30 hours,” said Lauren.

Lauren also insisted that an au pair is a cultural exchange program and not a domestic job. Thus, a work permit is not required from the Department of Foreign Affairs or Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

“Au pair is a cultural exchange while the domestic helper is like you are doing all the household work. In the au pair program, you only have to do light household work like taking care of their children and cooking for them,” said Lauren

Au pair ban

The au pair ban was implemented with the goal of protecting Filipinas, who go to the Europe as au pair, from abuse. But instead, this became a barrier for them to fully benefit from the au pair program. It also became a source of corruption.

“Doon sa training center, tinuturo kung paano ka makakalabas (ng bansa). So pag hindi mo sinunod yon, maho-hold ka so mag-aantay ka uli ng ilang araw bago ka makalipad. Ang tanong, anong gagawin mo sa Netherlands, sasabihin mo tourist. Pagdating mo sa Netherlands au pair. Sunsundin mo talaga yong sasabihin ng agency,” said Amy.

“Amy” related how she had to pay P15,000 to immigration at the airport so she will be allowed to exit the country. This is in addition to almost P100,000 that she had to pay the agency for training and cash bond. This is the very reason why Amy decided to stay with her host family despite the working ordeal, and she eventually became an illegal alien after her contract.

“Pag umuwi ako ng Pilipinas, hindi ko makukuha ang cash bond na inutang ko sa 5/6. Natapos ko na yung contract ko ng isang taon, hindi pa bayad iyon. Talagang napakahirap, pagdating dito pagsasamantalahan ka, aabusin ka,” said Amy.

Amy’s ordeals were confirmed by Grace Punongbayan, Migrante’s coordinator for au pair problems in the Netherlands.

“The au pair system was used as a placement for domestic helpers which it is not supposed to be because the au pair agreement is a cultural exchange program intended for young people. And the au pair agreement for a Filipina should be not be different. There should not be any discrimination,” said Punongbayan.

Punongbayan said that since 1999, Migrante has been campaigning for the lifting of the ban. But 3 administrations and 2 presidents have gone, and they have not heard any response.

“This ban should be lifted because it is not in the interest of our Filipina girls who want to be able to experience and increase their knowledge of the world, of other people’s cultures. It is not fair to continue this discrimination and penalize our young women. Bakit ka magba-ban eh patuloy pa din naman ang labas ng mga Pilipina?” said Punongbayan.

An appeal to P-noy

“Amy” is a graduate of 2 degrees but she did not have any luck with work. She worked in several institutions, hospitals, banks, marketing agencies. But the farthest she got was a 6-month contract.

“Alam mo, wala naman naghangad na pumunta sa abroad para magpakatulong ka. Nag-aral ako, pinag-aral ako ng nanay ko, pinag-aral ko ang sarili. Pero sa sobrang liit ng sahod, kahit anong gawin ko, kahit magdalawa ako ng trabaho kulang pa rin,” she said.

Since she left in 2007, Amy has not gone home. And if she does, the chances of her ever going back to Europe again will be very small. Because of this, she is appealing to President Aquino to lift the ban and protect au pairs like her, and provide local employment.

“Sana sa bagong pangulo natin, sana mabigyan ng pansin na magkaroon ng trabaho ang mga bagong graduates natin. At yong mga au pair na lumalabas sa bansa natin, i-lift nila yong ban sa au pair. Bigyan nila ng proteksyon yong mga au pair kasi napagsasamantalahan ng mga taga-rito. Pag nagsumbong sa agency, walang pakialam. Walang tumutulong sa kanila,” she said.
Last June 2010, the au pair ban in Norway was lifted. This gave hope to Migrante to talk with the Philippine embassy and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA)  to once again appeal for the lifting in the Netherlands.

They are hoping that the voices of young Filipina au pairs in the rest of Europe will be heard this time.