Many people move to Norway each year to work as au pairs. It's supposed to be primarily a cultural exchange, but critics claim the reality is wealthy Norwegians hiring cheap labour.
Barely a day goes by in Norway these days without a new story on au pairs hitting the media. Most recently, Norway's Minister of Justice hit the headlines as the Directorate for Immigration (UDI) questioned the legality of his family's au pair, although this has since been resolved.
Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reported that 229 people who had previously held au pair permits were expelled from the country between 2016 and 2019. Of those, 207 were for violations of the Immigration Act. So, what exactly is going on?
What is Norway's au pair program?
An au pair is basically a live-in nanny. The idea behind the program is for international people to improve their Norwegian language skills and learn about Norwegian society by living with a Norwegian family.
In return they provide services, usually childcare and light housework, for the host family. The host family provides accommodation and food, along with “pocket money” for the duration of the au pair's stay.
Read more: Au pair jobs in Norway
While not specifically targeted so, Filipinos make up the majority of people successfully accepted on to the au pair program. Such has been the storm around the recent stories, UDI's Director Frode Forfang addressed the issue on his blog:
“In recent years, an estimated one thousand people have been granted a first-time au-pair license each year. Most of these come from the Philippines. You can be an au pair for a maximum of two years.”
“The authorities have always tried to enforce this as a system for cultural exchange, while most people probably perceive it as an opportunity to get relief at home. The balance here is also one of the reasons why this has long been a controversial arrangement.”
The Minister of Justice case
A Filipino woman in her early 20s was ordered to leave Norway after UDI accused her of having worked illegally as an au pair for the Norwegian Justice Minister Jøran Kallmyr. She had been accused of working for the family from the period of 22 August – 12. October 2018, even though she did not submit her application for a renewed contract until 12 October.
Both Kallmyr and the au pair herself told NRK that she did not work during that time. “I relaxed, went out with friends, was in church and got to know the family. The Kallmyr family gave me the freedom to come and go as I wanted in the period when I was waiting for my appointment with the Police, she says.”
This week, UDI issued a press release saying the au pair has been given permission to return to Norway. They said although she did not follow the rules, they accept that it is unlikely she was working before the application was submitted. Therefore “there is no longer grounds for refusal.”
Changes coming to the immigration process?
While Forfang didn't comment on the case in his blog post, he did acknowledge the difficulty of dealing with this waiting period.
“When the regulations say that one cannot live or work with a family before one has submitted the application to the police, it is because such a separation in practice is difficult for the authorities to enforce. After all, the general experience is that the whole scheme is vulnerable to exploitation.”
“The requirement that the full application be delivered to the police in person has been in place for years. A few years ago, this was not a major problem because one could usually get an appointment with the police during the day. Since the online booking solution was introduced, this has been different.”
“The system of pre-booking time online is an improvement that creates predictability for both applicants and the police. In immigration cases, this can still create some challenges if the booking time is long and the applicants are not aware of this in advance.”
Prison sentence for exploitation
B ut the controversy of Norway's au pair program goes far beyond the waiting period problem. There are several cases of Norwegian families taking advantage of “cheap labour”. Critics say that the au pairs are unlikely to understand the detail in their terms of contract and what to do should they have a complaint.
Earlier this year, businessman Ragnar Horn and his wife received a short prison sentence for violating employment law and the rights of four Filipino au pairs. Among other things, the couple were convinced of supplying false information to the authorities.
They hired two Filipino sisters but because law allows only one au pair per family, they asked a family friend to say one of them was working there. Also, three of the au pairs were able to prove in court that they worked up to eleven hours per day.
When the case was initially brought before the district court, the couple admitted guilt but felt the sentence was too harsh. Horn claimed he was used as a “poster boy” for the problems with the scheme.
The future of Norway's au pair program
There seems to be some political will behind ending the program. “The current system has little to do with cultural exchange. If people want housekeepers, they should pay a normal salary, not take advantage of Filipino women,” a spokesperson from the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions told VG.
Back in 2017, Norway's opposition Labour party made it policy to end the scheme.
“After so many years of trying to prevent abuse of au pairs, the Labour Party has acknowledged that the current system must be replaced. I can confirm that the program committee of The Labour Party proposes to close down the current au pair system because it no longer works as intended,” said a party spokesperson.