'Vague, indiscriminate, frustrating': Families and au pairs risk breaking the law
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'Vague, indiscriminate, frustrating': Families and au pairs risk breaking the law

Australia's childcare crisis has led some families to break the law by employing au pairs without the correct visa.

Experts believe the two au pairs whose threatened removal from Australia was halted following the controversial intervention of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton may be the tip of an iceberg.

Foreign au pairs risk immigration detention and deportation because the rules and regulations governing their entry into Australia are uncertain and complex.

Sue Pember, the founder of Aussie Au Pair Services, said desperate families were breaking the law to find au pairs to care for their children.

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Felix Reiners, an au pair from Germany, reads a book with his charges.

Felix Reiners, an au pair from Germany, reads a book with his charges.Credit:Cole Bennetts

"At the moment there’s a severe shortage of au pairs in Australia, which has led to some families employing au pairs without the correct visa," she said. "But the current system is so vague, indiscriminate and frustrating that it leads people to stupid, and illegal actions."

Laurie Berg, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology, Sydney suggested there were 10,000 au pairs in the country, with a number of them getting into trouble for contravening the conditions of their visa.

Ms Pember said huge demand and a lack of understanding about the process led many families and au pairs to social media and unregulated sources resulting in exploitation of the au pairs and sometimes unsafe environments for the children.

She said ignorance of the rules was widespread among families, au pairs and the federal government.

"There would be thousands of cases where host families and au pairs are either ignorant of the regulations or knowingly engaging the services of au pairs who do not have appropriate working rights in Australia," Ms Pember said. "As to how many cases like this that Peter Dutton’s office may be aware of, that is anyone’s guess."

"I'm sick and tired of having to explain to federal ministers how their own system works, (or doesn’t work) and I just don’t have the patience to wait for changes to be made," she added.

Mr Dutton faces questions - and a Senate inquiry - over his intervention to stop the deportation of Alexandra Deuwel, a French au pair who had previously worked for relatives of AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan.

Labor and the Greens also accuse Mr Dutton of potentially misleading Parliament over his intervention to save from deportation another au pair who was destined to work for the family of Russell Keag who worked with Mr Dutton in the Queensland Police in the 1990s.

Peter Dutton faces questions about his intervention in a number of deportation cases involving au pairs.

Peter Dutton faces questions about his intervention in a number of deportation cases involving au pairs.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Shayne Neumann, Labor’s spokesman for immigration and border protection, said: "As each day goes by, there are more serious questions Peter Dutton needs to answer about the use of his ministerial intervention powers – including granting a visa to an individual who was previously counselled about breaching visa conditions.

"The Australian Border Force advised against the Minister granting the visa but he granted a visa anyway. Why did Peter Dutton act against Border Force’s advice?"

French au pair Alexandra Deuwel.

French au pair Alexandra Deuwel.Credit:Facebook

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to Fairfax Media's inquiries before deadline.

Dr Berg, who has surveyed 1500 au pairs about their work experiences, said au pairs on tourist visas – which don’t permit work – most frequently get into trouble. "But it could also apply to Working Holiday Makers or international students who contravene the work limit on their visa."

She said a foreign au pair travelling with her host family was deported from New Zealand to Australia after it was determined she would be performing childcare work. Another au pair was removed to Thailand when she attempted to re-enter Australia on a tourist visa to stay with a family for whom she had previously worked.

A foreign au pair is meant to live with a family as a domestic arrangement, helping out with childcare and household duties in exchange for board and pocket money rather than pay.

Dr Berg said a lack of regulation was a huge problem for foreign au pairs and families, especially when things go wrong.

"Lack of an official au pair program also means there is ambiguity about what au pairing is from the perspective of both au pairs and families," she said. "Is it a cultural exchange? Is it a job? It is some combination of rental agreement and childcare?"

Foreign au pairs working in Australia face other issues, including underpayment, unreasonable work demands, unceremonious sackings and unwanted sexual advances.

"[T]here can be a big power disparity between families and au pairs, who are young, new to Australia, probably have no family or support structures here and may not be fluent in English," Dr Berg said. "There are many accounts of au pairs being paid treated effectively like low-paid nannies or housekeepers."

Wendi Aylward, the president of the Cultural Au Pair Association of Australia, said a dedicated visa would clear up uncertainty over work rights, provide safeguards for au pairs and families and address Australia’s childcare crisis.

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Felix Reiners, an 18-year-old au pair from Germany, looks after Ms Aylward’s children for about 25 hours a week since arriving in Australia in July on a working holiday visa.

Mr Reiners said he planned to au pair with the Aylward family until January when he would travel around Australia.

But Ms Aylward said the working holiday visa did not meet the demand from Australian families for au pairs.

"As the number of countries with a working holiday visa agreement are largely European based, most au pairs come to Australia after their school exams between July and October," she said.

"In January and February when many families are looking for an au pair, the current visa’s seasonal limitations means the demand for au pairs far outstrips the support."