I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank everybody for being here to welcome my Bill which is required to bring legal clarity to au pair exchanges. There is no definition of au pair in Irish legislation and the absence of such a definition has created a legal lacuna for host families and au pairs. In March the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, made a ruling on an au pair payment which threatens to undermine the tradition of au pair exchanges. The issue affects 20,000 families who use au pairs and have been criminalised by the ruling.
I am not trying to say one group is wrong and another is right. I am trying to find an expression that represents the 20,000 families who have engaged in the tradition of having an au pair. Without action on the issue, the au pair system will be a thing of the past. This would be a tragedy for the families and children who host them and the thousands of young men and women who come to our shores every year and live with an Irish family, learn English, experience our culture and build long-lasting relationships with young people from other countries, as well as Irish families.
Groups such as Migrant Rights Centre Ireland aim to do away with the tradition and practice of having au pair. They dislike it because of its informal exchange of mutual benefit rather than being a conventional employee-employer relationship. It is ludicrous to take the position that parents who take in au pairs and provide them with lodging, hospitality and pocket money in exchange for flexible child minding arrangements and doing light housework are in an exploitative relationship. The majority of au pair-host relationships in Ireland and almost all other countries in western Europe, including those with the highest quality and most accessible child care services in the world such as Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, are not exploitative, but this is not to say there has not been exploitation. I totally acknowledge that there has, which is why legislation is required.
The claim that the status quo arrangements are working and should not be touched is untenable. Since March the 20,000 families who use au pairs have been terrified that they are breaking the law, which is why I have brought forward the Bill. I have received telephone calls, as have Deputies around the Chamber, since March. People are asking us, as legislators, to assist and support them.
The case-by-case adjudication made by the courts or the WRC is not good for au pairs. The Bill will provide far superior protection for au pairs and host families than they enjoy. More than 50 cases are awaiting adjudication by the WRC. Many of these so-called au pairs were working up to 50 hours per week, often for two to four years, but that is not what the Bill is about. For the first time, it will make clear what is not an au pair exchange. It defines an au pair exchange as a cultural, educational exchange programme involving light child care and domestic chores in return for the host family providing lodging, hospitality and pocket money. The Bill will provide far greater protection for au pairs.
By defining clearly what is and is not an au pair exchange, the Bill will also provide far greater protection for domestic workers who are wrongly taken in under the guise of an au pair position. More often than not, in exploitation situations, the workers are taken on directly via an au pair website rather than through an intermediary such as an au pair agency. If a young person who enters into an arrangement as an au pair with a host family believes he or she is being overworked or treated unfairly, the only recourse is through the courts or the WRC.
The new arrangement proposed in the legislation provides much greater protection for au pairs with a much more easily accessible dispute resolution mechanism prior to going to the courts or the WRC.
New protections for au pairs are provided in the following manner: first, the Bill will outlaw the current practice of au pairs and host families finding each other directly via au pair exchange websites. In this scenario, a host and an au pair either enter directly into a relationship without an intermediary au pair agency, which would usually interview the potential au pair as well as the host family and identify the suitability between both. Under our legislation, for an au pair placement to be considered as such by law, au pairs and host families will have to go through an accredited agency or an intermediary. Second, the Bill provides for a written agreement between the host family and the au pair prior to entering any arrangement. These agreements will be standardised according to regulations set down by the Minister in conjunction with the sector. The written agreement will ensure both families and the au pairs enter into an arrangement with both eyes open. The agreements will set down in detail what the light child care domestic chores will involve, how many hours per day or per week and, importantly, by definition, if au pairs work in excess of these hours, they will no longer be classed as au pairs but as domestic workers. In return, the agreement will specify the lodgings that will be provided to au pairs, their access to meals and other hospitality, as well as the pocket money they will be furnished with.
While the idea of providing pocket money rather than a wage has been criticised, such criticism is misguided. It is usually more beneficial to both au pairs and to the host families for this to be considered as an informal exchange where the young person lives with the family rather than as a conventional employee-employer relationship that does not involve lodging. Some 20,000 au pairs travel to work in Ireland each year. However, if families had to register as employees and pay the current minimum wage as well as employer's PRSI while complying with employer regulations associated with the formal employer-employee relationship, the number of families taking traditional live-in au pairs would reduce significantly. We estimate the number would reduce by between 80% and 90%. The WRC ruling does not properly take into account the value of accommodation and hospitality for au pairs.
I bring my personal experience to bear in this debate. I am a mum working full time and I need the support of an au pair. My children go to school and come home at 3 p.m. but I still have to hold clinics in the evening and, therefore, I need assistance between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. That equates to six hours a day, five days a week, giving a total of 30 hours. That is the support working families are looking for. I do not see myself as a criminal but that is what I will be classified as and, therefore, I ask Members to support the Bill.