From top: The 2015 launch of the Labour of Love campaign, an initiative of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) and MRCI’s Domestic Workers Action Group calling for the protection of au pairs’ employment rights in Ireland’ Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte; Ruth Coppinger with her daughter Sarah at the Dublin West coun centre during the last General Election.
On Newstalk Breakfast, presenter Shane Coleman spoke to Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte and Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger – in light of Ms Rabbitte’s proposed bill concerning au pairs.
The proposed bill comes after the Workplace Relations Commission, in March of this year, awarded €9,229 to a Spanish woman who was paid €100 a week, plus board, for between 30 and 60 hours of work per week, during her employment with an Irish family between August 2014 and January 2015.
The woman claimed she had been exploited by the family.
The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland hailed the decision as a landmark ruling.
From their discussion…
Shane Coleman: “The legislation that is bring brought forward by Fianna Fáil, aiming to offer more protection to au pairs. It would see au pairs on cultural exchanges in Ireland, limited ot 30 hours of work a week. They’d get free lodging and pocket money. It’s being debated in the Dáil at the moment. We’re joined on the line by, or we’re join in the studio by Anne Rabbitte, Fianna Fáil TD for Galway East, spokesperson for children and youth affairs, and also on the line by Ruth Coppinger, TD for Dublin West, for the Anti-Austerity Alliance. Anne Rabbitte if I could just start with you first. What exactly are you proposing and how will it protect au pairs?”
Anne Rabbitte: “Well the bill that I have brought before the Chamber is to bring about legal clarity because at this present moment in Ireland we don’t have a definition for au pairs and this all stems from the fact that the WRC [Workplace Relations Commission] ruling in March 2016 where an au pair payment was paid, where a case was brought before it where in actual fact an au pair said she had worked X number of hours and she needed, the WRC claimed that an au pair was actually classified as a worker. And, in actual fact, it has actually put 20,000 families at risk. So, this is where it all stems from.”
Coleman: “OK. So, you’re proposing a certain number of hours per week, a certain kind of time off, free lodging and a bit of pocket money?”
Rabbitte: “All right. Exactly the nature of the bill. One was to bring clarity in definition, secondly was to bring actually, it’s a cultural education exchange and in lieu of that then it was for a maximum 30 hours a week and it was also to help out with light chores and to help out with the children, that was it. It’s a traditional thing that has gone on here for a long number of years. In actual fact, this has been going on the last 40 years and has never been legislated for. And in actual fact it probably wouldn’t have been legislated for only for what has happened in March 2016.”
Coleman: “OK, let’s bring in Ruth Coppinger. Ruth, that sounds like a sensible measure or do you disagree?”
Ruth Coppinger: “The bill is totally regressive, would take away much fought for workers’ rights which is what it was attempting to do, which was to revert the ruling that au pairs, they’re not au pairs. Let’s dispense with this idea that au pairs exist in the traditional context. Most so-called au pairs are childcare workers, they’re women, over 30, many of them are mothers themselves, trying to, very well-educated and really don’t need the cultural or educational exchange. This bill is an attempt to give a cover to potential exploitation of these workers in people’s homes, giving a cover of cultural exchange. It was roundly rejected by every single party in the Dáil. And I’m really mystified as to how it even reached the Dáil floor. Because if 20,000 families are relying on so-called au pairs. Well then it actually just contradicts the claim that these people are there for cultural exchange. What these 20,000 families are relying on is childcare workers. And what it points up: is that we need proper subsidised, affordable childcare in this country.”
Coleman: “OK. All right.”
Coppinger: “We do not need to exploit people as the Migrant Rights Centre said…”
Coleman: “OK. I want to bring Anne Rabbitte back in there. Anne…”
Rabbitte: “Actually Ruth clearly does not understand where I’m coming from. In actual fact, where I’m coming from, is 20,000 families who in actual fact provide the opportunity for a cultural exchange. I am not looking at targeting or going against the migrants’ rights or I’m not going against anything that the 30s or 40s age bracket. What I’m looking at is people who want to come on a gap year, on a cultural educational exchange to Ireland, we have done it in Ireland for a long number of years. We actually send our children abroad doing it. So, in actual fact, it’s to facilitate this whereas families can embrace children, bring them in, give them protection. In actual fact, what this bill is about, is about protection. Protection for the au pair, protection for the host family and it’s improving going through targeted agencies. Because, at this moment in time, people are actually booking au pairs, so-called au pairs, off websites. What I want to do is regularise it completely so we are providing the cultural, educational exchange. ”
Coleman: “OK. Ruth Coppinger. If there’s credited agencies there dealing with this, well then you won’t have women over 30, who have children, coming here and getting paid peanuts.”
Coppinger: “But that’s not the reality. What she’s talking about is a fiction. The reality is this. First of all, in her bill, in her own bill, she talks about 30 hours work, which is practically a full-time job, for pocket money. The words ‘help’ are used. I find this incredibly sexist, that any labour that women provide is help and it’s devalued and shouldn’t be properly compensated, it should be. The idea of… it’s peddling a dangerous myth that au pairs are mainly students on a gap year, having a bit of craic, learning English from their host family. The evidence is otherwise. That picture is gone, it’s gone out the window with The Sound of Music or whatever else. The reality now is au pairs are not au pairs. They’re actually older women, most of them are from Brazil, 98% of them are over 30, and let’s stop insulting these workers, many of them are being exploited…”
Coleman: “Just before I bring Anne back in, just, my point to you, at the start of that question was, if you have a credited agency, doesn’t that get over that issue of people being brought in from, who are over 30, then would be actually students who are genuinely on a gap year.”
Coppinger: “No because those agencies have been shown to be largely bogus. What we would be overturning here, by the way with this bill, would be a practice that’s now being acknowledged by the Department of Labour or by the Department of Children, that these are workers and that they’re entitled to at least the minimum wage. And what I’d say is this: if there are families who really want to participate in this is pay the person at least the minimum wage. And, in fact, I think there should be paying them a lot more. I wouldn’t pay a babysitter to mind my child and pay them less than the minimum wage. So what’s the problem here? And I think what we’re seeing is, like Fianna Fáil, it’s a bit rich, they cut public sector pay, they’re telling us that …”
Coleman: “Just stick with the issue, just stick with the issue…”
Coppinger: “No, it’s extremely relevant because last…”
Coleman: “It’s not actually…”
Coppinger: “They were saying..it is. Because in the debate last night, which I participated in, another TD from Fianna Fáil said there was public sector workers who were reliant now on au pairs. The reason they’re reliant on au pairs is that they’ve had their pay cut and there’s no affordable childcare.”
Coleman: “Let Anne Rabbitte come back in..”
Rabbitte: “Well actually last night, in the Dáil, Bríd Smith, Maureen O’Sullivan, Fiona O’Loughlin, all had a fabulous experience, believe it or not, as being au pairs themselves…”
Coleman: “OK [to Coppinger], just let her [Rabbitte] answer the question, then you can come back in…”
Rabbitte: “In actual fact there was members right across the Dáil last night who actually understand the essence of my bill and exactly where I was coming from.”
Coleman: “Sorry, but doesn’t Ruth Coppinger make a good point? You pay your babysitter €8/€9/€10 an hour, roughly around the minimum wage…”
Coleman: “Shouldn’t it be the same for au pairs?”
Rabbitte: “Well, I think what we need to…as the debate unfolded last night, something became very clear from it and it was from Minister Breen. What in actual fact is board and lodgings is allowed for au pairs and, at this moment in time, it actually has a rating of only €54. And Deputy Butler said last night, she said in actual fact she’s after putting the kids through college and she certainly couldn’t put them through for €54, board and lodgings, for a week. So what Minister Breen said was, that needs to be looked at. The allowance for board and lodgings, if that was increased up, to the market rate. Drumcondra, at this moment in time, is €180 to stay for a week if you went into board and lodgings so if you were to do it, on that basis, absolutely, then we could regularise the au pair market and that actually would bring it inside then, you could actually have the pocket money, as I call it, because I was trying to keep within the labour terminology completely, to keep it in what it was. So in actual fact, you’d work out at the €10 an hour, for the 30 hours in the week.”
Coleman: “Ruth Coppinger, if it could be guaranteed that it was genuinely the case that it was students, people under the age of 23 or 24, who were coming here for a short fixed period of time, as part of a gap year, would you be amenable to that? Would you be happy with that?”
Coppinger: “The difficulty is that this is now being used it would seem by increasingly by people because they can’t actually access affordable childcare. But it’s also allowing people exploit. We need to recognise these people as workers. As I said, you wouldn’t hire a babysitter for €5…”
Coleman: “I know, you made that point but the question I asked you…”
Talk over each other
Coppinger: “But Anne is using the word ‘pocket money’. Anyone over 16, who goes out to work, is a worker. And it’s an employee-employer relationship. I don’t see what the problem is if people are paying their taxes and it’s all above board. I’ve no problem with any cultural exchanges, but let’s be honest about what’s going on here. There’s real expatiation, there were two so-called au pairs in the public gallery [of the Dáil] last night. One of them works 35 hours a week, she gets no food from the family at the weekend, and gets €110 [a week] and often you’re talking about bed and board there, there’s actually an invasion of a lot of these workers’ privacy. We’ve had, you know, people being admonished for talking on the phone in their room to their boyfriends and Skype. You know, there is a real dangerous situation here where you’re in somebody’s house and you’re open to being exploited.”
Coleman: “OK, Anne Rabbitte.”
Rabbitte: “My fear is that if this bill doesn’t go through or we don’t get support, or we don’t get it to a committee stage, then in actual fact, we’re going to drive it right into the black market. That’s…”
Coppinger: “Why do people say that?”
Rabbitte: “That’s what I’m seeing it going. Because there’s 20,000 families. In actual fact, are we saying the 20,000 families there, who use au pairs, should be criminalised? That’s what we’re actually saying?”
Coppinger: “No, we’re saying they should just pay the minimum wage, at least. But actually these women are doing…Let’s dispense with the light housework. Anyone who has ever minded a child, anyone who has ever done laundry or housework, it’s not, it’s heavy work. It’s physically exerting and it’s mentally…”
Rabbitte: “Well, Ruth, I should know all about it. I’m a mother myself.”
Coppinger: “Yeah, so am I, Anne…”
Rabbitte: “And in actual fact, that’s exactly where I’m coming from with this bill to be quite fair with myself Ruth. That in actual fact, I didn’t set out to have a go at the migrants’ rights. I didn’t have set out, in actual fact, to undo the work of the WRC. What I set out to do with this bill was, in actual fact, was to protect the 20,000 families who actually feel like criminals at this moment in time. Who are facing into September and, in actual fact, yes, they want to create a work-life balance, that’s where that bill comes from, Ruth.”
Listen back in full here.
Au pair bill ‘would create migrant underclass’ (The Times of Ireland, Liz Farsaci)
Pic: Orla Kennedy