More than 100 German au pair agencies have agreed to bring their services in line with a unified set of quality standards. It's hoped the move will curb abuse of au pairs.
Au pairs are more than cheap labor
For Ilona Schlegel, there were two events in recent years that made it clear to her that it was time to introduce unified standards for au pair agencies.
The head of the National Association for International Youth Workers said she noticed an increased demand for au pair jobs in Germany. More than 30,000 au pairs come here each year, from countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Mongolia.
But another development worried Schlegel. Two years ago, it no longer became necessary to use an au pair agency when bringing in personnel from countries with visa requirements.
The result? An unmanageable market, and easy access for dubious agencies, Schlegel said.
"Internet sites offered mail-order brides as well as au pair arrangements -- suddenly there was a very shady market," she said. "But the trigger was the suicide of an au pair at the end of 2002. She was physically abused by her host family, and because she had no agency, no contact person in Germany, she hanged herself in their basement."
For the future, au pair agencies are planning a telephone hotline for au pairs in danger so that they have someone to talk to and a concrete way to get help.
"With the hotline, an important step has been taken to effectively protect au pairs from exploitation and abuse. With the new standards, the rights and duties of the host parents and of the au pairs themselves have been clearly detailed," said Christel Riemann-Hanewinckel from the Ministry for Family Affairs.
Those who sign up with a certified agency to find work as an au pair will be assured that their host family can provide a room that meets the minimum size standard, that they won't be expected to work more than 30 hours a week, and that they will receive €260 ($344) pocket money per month -- even if they get sick. The host family is also required to pay to insure their au pair.
If only it were always so much fun
In return, au pairs need to prove that they have experience caring for children and can speak basic German.
Agencies who want to be certified are required to intensively prepare both au pairs and host families for their year together. Immediately following the au pair's arrival in Germany, an independent institute will check that host families are living up to their end of the agreement.
Initial inspections are expected to be completed by the summer of next year, and the first stamps of approval doled out to agencies that pass muster.