By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
Migrant organizations and advocacy groups supporting migrant rights are appealing to Vice-President Jejomar Binay to address the needs of Filipino au pairs in Europe. They also said the vice president was seriously mistaken if he believes that au pairs are overseas Filipino workers employed as household helpers.
Last week, Binay said the Philippine government may consider proposals to lift its ban against sending Filipinas to European countries to participate in the so-called” “au pair” programs where families provide the au pair with room, board, and a small salary in exchange for taking care of small children. Binay said reinstating the au pair program in some European countries will bring employment opportunities to Filipinos.
“I believe this would facilitate the establishment of education and employment opportunities in Europe for Filipinos, particularly those who have been affected by the political situation in the Middle East,” Binay said in a statement.
According to reports, the Philippines stopped sending au pairs to Europe in 1997 after the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) received reports of maltreatment, including being given unfair compensation; being forced to work an excessive number of hours and being subjected to sexual harassment.
In October 2010, however, the Philippine Overseas and Employment Administration (POEA) lifted the ban in countries that guaranteed to protect the au pairs and follow the conditions set by the Philippine government for their deployment. The Philippines has since began allowing the deployment of au pairs in Switzerland, Norway, and Denmark. The ban, however, remains in place in the Netherlands and Belgium, where Filipino au pairs are said to be most requested by host families.
“Au pair” is a French term that translates to “on par” or “equal to.” The au pair program is open to female or male Filipinos above 20 years old, who avail of the program to “live on an equal basis in a reciprocal, caring relationship” with their host families. They are supposed to be treated as members of the family; are given light household work such as caring for the children; receive an allowance and given the opportunity to study the language and culture of the country where they are in.
Binay, who is also presidential adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) affairs, said they are already in the process of reviewing the au pair program in order to facilitate proper guidelines and policies on departure and monitoring.
The vice-president met with officials from the Department of Labor and Employment, the POEA,the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Education, and the Bureau of Immigration to identify countries where the ban could be lifted.
Migrante International’s chapter in Europe, however, said enforcing proper guidelines are good, but the steps the Aquino administration intends to take still fall short of what needs to be addressed as far as the situation of Filipino au pairs is concerned.
Au pairs are not migrant workers
Migrante Europe chairperson Grace Punongbayan said an au pair does not belong under the overseas Filipino worker category because it is essentially a cultural program. She said the POEA should review the original government policy on au pairs and remove the au pair program from the POEA.
“We still have to see concrete measures in terms of protecting the rights and welfare of Filipino au pairs in Europe, including the Netherlands,” Punongbayan said. She went on to say that despite the ban on the deployment of au pairs to the Netherlands and Belgium, scores of young Filipinos continue to participate in au pair programs in these countries.
“They’re prey to corrupt Philippine immigration officials who have to be bribed with hard-earned money so that they would be allowed to leave,” Punongbayan said.
According Punongbayan, many Filipino au pairs are forced to work long hours and do backbreaking work without due compensation. There also remain persistent reports of physical and verbal abuse, including rape and sexual assaults by their male hosts.
“There have been two cases of mysterious deaths of Filipino au pairs while in the homes of their host families in the Netherlands in the past years, and that the cases have been swept under the rug, the families of the victims muted and silenced and denied recourse to justice,” she said.
In the meantime, she insisted that the Philippine government’s ban on the deployment of Filipino au pairs to Europe has proven to be an ineffective response to the reported abuses. It deprives Filipina au pairs their right to travel abroad as an au pair and make use of the opportunity provided by this cultural exchange program. They also become vulnerable to blackmail by unscrupulous immigration officers to allow them to leave for countries where they are banned.
“The ban has not solved the problem of abuse and exploitation of au pairs but has only spawned other abuses. She pointed out that what is needed is on-site assistance programs from Philippine embassies to respond to au pairs in distress or those encountering rights and welfare problems,” she said.
In the meantime, Punongbayan said the Philippine government should remove the au pair program from the supervision of the Department of Labor and Employment and the POEA because au pairs are not migrant workers.
“The au pair program is meant to be a cultural exchange program,” he said.
Migrante Europe brought to the attention of several members of the House of Representatives the plight of Filipino au pairs during the second assembly of the International Migrants’ Alliance held in Manila last July 3. It submitted the resolution entitled “Resolution to Defend and Advance the Rights and Welfare of Filipino Women Au Pairs in Europe” at the Second International Assembly of the International Migrants’ Alliance (IMA) held in Quezon City the same month.
In the resolution, the migrant group calls on congress and Malacañang to lift the ban on the deployment of au pairs to the Netherlands; enter into bilateral talks with the European governments regarding the protection of Filipino au pairs; remove the wrongful categorization of au pairs as migrant workers and thus under the POEA, and restore it as a cultural exchange program; and immediately set up a concrete program through the DFA to uphold the rights and welfare of Filipino au pairs and defend them against exploitation and abuse.
Ban against au pair program in Norway lifted
It was last June 2010 when the DFA and their counterparts from the Norwegian governments agreed to lift the ban on sending au pairs to Norway. According to the DFA, the conditions prevailing in Norway warrant sufficient safety nets to promote and protect the rights and welfare of the au pairs in the country.
“The Norwegian government has also exercised flexibility and accommodation of the Philippine government’s requirements to provide safety nets to provide health insurance for au pairs, as well as cover their repatriation in case of death or when they are no longer able to fulfill their contracts due to terminal illness and other similar reasons. According to the Norwegian authorities, the au pair contract has already been amended to reflect such provisions and will be effective in June 2010,” it said.
In a 2009 report written by Norway-based freelance journalist Macel Ingles, Filipinos were still flocking to Norway to work as au pairs as late as 2008 despite the ban. The number of au pairs jumped from 78 in 2000 to 2,090 in 2008 according to reports from the Norwegian Immigration Department (UDI). According to Ingles, seven out of 10 au pair permits issued by the department are given to Filipinos despite the ban on au pair deployment by the Philippines’ DFA since 1997.
Babaylan Denmark, an advocacy group led by Filipinos in Norway in the meantime has been keeping taps on Demark’s new Guidelines on legal au pair deployment.
In a report written by Ana Lindenhamn, Filomenita M.Høgsholm and Judy Jover, it was noted that the ban on au pair deployment imposed by the Philippine government more than 15 years ago has led to massive corruption: departing au pairs were forced to pay at least P30, 000 ($690) to corrupt Philippine immigration officials and other airport authorities, and the total amount equalled millions every year.
Lindenhamn et al said that as of 2010, Babaylan Denmark continued to receive reports about the continuing extortion. They appealed to the Benigno Aquino III administration to put an end to the corruption practices.
The group said it continues to press the Danish government to pass measures calling for the illness insurance policies and policies for repatriation in case of death for au pairs. It said this is “one of heaviest nuts to crack and the most significant improvement under the new bilateral agreement between the Philippine and Danish governments on au pairs.”
The Danish government however, does not allocate resources to cover costs for caskets and repatriation. Au pairs are allowed access to hospital benefits, but beyond that, no more.
There are also no safe way houses for au pairs who encounter problems with their sponsor families. The report said that in some instances where problems arise and au pairs are forced to leave their host families. They become highly vulnerable and many are in danger of being rendered homeless vagrants if not for the help of other Filipinos.
Babaylan Denmark said the Philippine and Danish governments should coordinate over the establishment of women refuge centers reserved for Danish victims of domestic violence that will also be au pairs in emergency situations.
“Like repatriation, this issue has to be tackled between the sending and receiving states. No voluntary organization in the community at the moment has resources to put up refuge centers, but volunteers can be found if the infrastructure is provided,” it said.
Changes in Netherlands’ policies on Au Pairs
In the meantime, recent reports in the Netherlands reveal that the immigration service IND is set to announce a get-tough policy to ensure young women coming to the Netherlands as au pairs are not exploited.
According to reports, IND officials believe many official au pair agencies do not take enough steps to ensure girls are well treated and do not end up in the hands of prostitution rings or syndicates. Seven of the 20 bureaus, which work with the IND to bring in au pairs, have been put under extra supervision and one has been dropped altogether.
The IND said that around 1,600 young women mainly from the Philippines, South Africa and South America come to the Netherlands as an au pair every year.
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.
Migrante Europe has been calling for the removal of the ban against au pair deployment in the Netherlands.
In an interview with the media, Punongbayan said the au pair system was used as a placement for domestic helpers which should not have been allowed 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 was quoted as saying that since 1999, Migrante has been campaigning for the lifting of the ban.