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Culture

Modern-Day Cinderellas

Au pairs often come to Germany hoping to learn the language in the care of a friendly German family. But all too often they are exploited, says Deutsche Welle's Claus Hecking.

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An Au pair or a maid?

Somaya Hamdi had wanted to come to Germany to learn some German alongside doing a regular child-care job for a normal family.

But like so many others, the Tunisian teenager became a modern-day Cinderella. Forced to work from seven in the morning to late at night, Hamdi didn't have a moment's free time and earned barely enough to make her rent, let alone afford language school fees.

Liberal labor laws

The tale is not new, but the situation for au pairs coming to Germany has become increasingly precarious since a new law, deregulating employment provision, came into effect last year. Since March 2002, any German can set up his or her own Au-pair agency. At a costof €30, the number of agencies has risen five-fold, some run by less-than-reputable businessmen and women.

German families under strain of long working hours are often just a few mouse clicks away from internet gallery of photos, from which they can pick out their favored au pair from Eastern Europe or Africa.

"These pictures give the impression that it's some kind of mail-order catalog," criticized Ilona Schlegel, director of a German protestant church association for international youth labor. "It's as if these young au-pairs were a product, that a consumer can order online and switch it when they don't like it."

Schlegel says many of the more dubious au-pair agencies lie to vulnerable young girls to get them to come to Germany. "They promise them a stay in paradise with enormous earnings, and tell them they don't have to be able to speak German. Sometimes they will fake language certificates for them," she said.

The agencies also have little problem acquiring work visas for their young foreign au pairs. Under German law, the only thing the agency must prove is that an au pair will be given his or her own room at the host family's home and will receive at least €205 pocket money a month. However, these conditions are hardly ever checked. And once they arrive in Germany, many young au pairs find themselves completely unprotected.

Pleas for help

Increasingly, desperate au pairs are coming to look for help, said Martina Johann of the Catholic help organization IN VIA. "A lot don't get pocket money, no holiday, have to work too much and do not receive health insurance."

But the German parliament is now working to improve the lot for au pairs in Germany, following the suicide of a young Romanian girl, who hung herself after being severely mistreated by her German host family in Bavaria. Plans are now afoot to award reputable au pair agencies a 'good health' stamp and in future, au pairs will be extensively briefed on their rights during their stay in Germany.

Such moves are too late for Somya Hamdi, the teenager from Tunisia. In her case, she had to rely on simple human kindness, not legislation. The family living next door to Hamdi's host family stepped in, directed the girl to a decent au pair agency and paid her ticket to travel to a new host family in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. There she is doing well and, this time at least, is being treated properly.

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