food / travel

Au Pair Or Indentured Servant? Globetrotting Babysitters Face Exploitation

Taking care of a stranger’s children in exchange for food and housing is a popular way to see the world, but many young women find themselves in tough situations.

Piling up
Piling up
Léa Sanchez

PARIS — Young women marched in London last month in memory of Sophie Lionnet, a young French au pair who had been murdered and whose charred remains were discovered on Sept. 20 in her employers' backyard. The au pairs were also protesting their own living and working conditions, the endless hours and the feeling of exploitation.

Every year, thousands of mostly young women travel abroad to work as au pairs, taking care of local families' children and receiving food, housing and some spending money in exchange.

It is hard to estimate how many au pairs there are; every placement agency has its own statistics. But many young people choose to bypass agencies, to avoid paying fees. Some do not even have written agreements on work hours or pay. These situations often lead to abuse. Horror stories abound on social media platforms for both French youth abroad and foreigners in France.

Caroline Gandilhon, a student from the Val-de-Marne area southeast of Paris, was very happy with her first experience as an au pair in England. Her employers, whom she had met online, treated her like a member of the family, she took care of an "adorable" baby and she was paid 80 pounds ($105) per week.

She said her next family, also found online, was very different and did not respect their agreement. Instead of a large room with a private bathroom, as she had been promised, the young French woman lived in a "closet" with a "rundown toilet." She said she was given many household chores. "The parents didn't want me to leave the house during the day except to go grocery shopping, and they asked me to stay home during the weekend in case they needed help with the kids. In short, I was a little exploited," said the young woman. "The kids hit me and insulted me." She decided to leave after only one month.

At first, everything was going well

Lauryn, who also left for England without a contract or an agency, saw her situation deteriorate bit by bit. "At first, everything was going well," but one night, her host family woke her up at 10:30 to polish shoes. And "as the days went by, they added things for me to do," such as ironing or cleaning the entire house, tasks that were not part of the responsibilities she had initially agreed to.

In France, many young foreign women feel they are abused by their host families. "They exploited me. I had to spend all day taking care of a baby and then go pick up the 5-year-old son, and on top of that I had to clean the house, do the ironing, all for 45 euros about $52 per week," said Andrea, who is from Barcelona. Another young woman was locked in the house by her host family.

Lucía Pérez, 22, says she suffered an "ordeal." She found a family online who was looking for someone five hours a day, four times a week. They said their house was "easily accessible" with public transportation, when in reality, a bus came by only once every hour and a half. "I worked day and night," the young Spanish woman said, especially since one of the children was handicapped and not in school. Pérez, who didn't have a contract, ended up filing a complaint.

At least one full free day per week

For Sophie Hertzog, president of the French union of au pair agencies, it is impossible to verify the seriousness of host families online. "In fact, some countries, like the United States, only allow au pair placement through agencies," she said.

But the rules vary and are often vague. The European Agreement on au pair Placement of 1969, signed by several countries, set up an initial framework. It specifies that people placed as au pairs must be aged between 17 and 30 and must have a written agreement with the host family that includes food and housing. The au pairs must also be given "at least one full free day per week," including one free Sunday a month, not work more than five hours per day, etc.

Britain is not subject to this agreement, unlike France, where foreign au pairs benefit from a "family aid trainee" status. Hertzog still considers this status ill-defined: "When they apply for a visa, they get a student visa. We want them to have a clear status, because these youths are coming first and foremost for a cultural exchange."

In France, host families must support and declare their trainees. But many au pairs fly under the radar. The URSSAF, the French organization that collects social security contributions from employers and employees, counted only 1,700 employers of "family aid trainees' in 2017. This is low, according to placement agencies. Hertzog estimates that there are between 4,000 and 5,000 au pairs in France.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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