Published in The Manila Times, Opinion section, September 30, 2010
LETTERS FROM THE OUTLANDS
BY LAKAMBINI A. SITOY
Nowadays when “Filipina” is mentioned in the Danish news, it is often in connection with “au pair.” The newspaper Politiken noted last week that 2773 persons received permission to work as au pairs in Denmark in 2009. Of this number, 78 percent came from the Philippines. You see her more and more in Copenhagen and its suburbs: the small Asian woman and her charges. With steady determination and downcast eyes, she maneuvers a huge pram down the pavement and into a bus: inside is a tow-headed child, sometimes two.
Her apparent alone-ness, the paradox of her nurturing role and yet the obvious non-blood connection between her and her charges, cannot escape notice.
For those of us who grew up in the Philippines and have grown inured to the notion that our countrymen who work abroad must do so, for the most part, in blue-collar jobs, the term “au pair” sounds ironic and an actual insult to the intelligence. For one, we don’t see any Danish girls arriving in the Philippines to live with a family and perform light housework in exchange for learning more about our culture and sharing some of hers. No bilateral au pair agreement exists between the two countries. Secondly, we have heard enough stories about what our domestic workers can expect abroad, and we know that au pair is a euphemism.
So the 2163 or so Filipinos who received permission last year to stay in Denmark in connection with an au pair status, actually traveled out “at their own risk,” on au pair visas that, according to some I talked to, require “escorts” at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to enable them to get through immigration. The services rendered by these escorts is, of course, not gratis, and a woman may stay deeply in debt for this and other expenses, well into the middle of her contract. In recompense for helping with the housework, just like a member of the family, the au pair’s living expenses are paid for and she (and sometimes he) receives “pocket money”—which in the Danish case would be at least 3,000 kroner a month, according to Politiken. This is far below the wage that a cleaner, hotel chambermaid, or housekeeper can earn.
Yet the work performed by a Philippine au pair can be as physically strenuous as that of her higher-paid counterparts. It is also psychologically taxing: the au pair’s work, like that of traditional live-in domestic servants, does not necessarily end when the hours stipulated in her contract have run out for the day. Rather, because she shares the same domestic space as her “host family,” she is, as a matter of fact, on call for small emergencies, like a young child who wants a glass of water at half past midnight. Add to that the difficulties in communication: children who speak only Danish, and the fact that English is a second language to all parties in the relationship, not to mention cultural differences in the way messages are sent and received.
There is awareness, sympathy and debate in the Danish media over whether au pairs from Third World nations (now represented by the Philippines) are being victimized.
The ambiguity of their status, and the Danish authorities’ failure to respect and uphold the Philippine ban on au pairs in Scandinavia, is one aspect. More has been, and is being said, however, about the issue of how employing a Third World woman to do a Danish woman’s housework impacts the very Scandinavian notion of equal rights. One woman’s (underpaid) labor frees another up, allowing her to pursue a career and enjoy bonding with her husband and family because she is spared the trouble of doing the dirty work.
The fact that this cheap labor is provided for the most part by a Filipino woman is also troubling for many. What does this say about Scandinavian notions of equality that it has become acceptable for a woman of a different race to clean up after oneself?
Can one separate the issue of race from the issue of economy, and say that the reason it is acceptable for a Filipina to quietly wash floors and wipe fingerprints off the glass tabletops in one’s home is because she is poor and this is the best option available for her?
Some voices in the debate contend that having a Filipino au pair is a win/win situation for both parties, in that the Danish host family gets a domestic for less, and the au pair gets to send money home to her family. In another article in Politiken last week, for instance, Karsten Lau-ritzen, integration spokesman for the ruling political coalition, referred to the au pair agreement (presumably with the au pair and her host family) as “a good form of foreign aid.”
It is common for Filipino households, regardless of economy, to have at least one domestic worker — or to wish they had one. I am interested in knowing what readers think about Filipino au pairs working in Danish host families. Please feel free to send in your comments on this issue.