The not so equal au pair

The term means `on the same level'. But many au pairs are treated as cheap servants, argues Margaret St John
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SOPHIE Vladovic was studying English at Sarajevo University when the war broke out in Bosnia in April 1992. She fled to Kosovo but could not get a university place there. Half Serb, half Muslim, she felt increasingly threatened. Her father, an engineer, lost his job; her mother was forced to retire. She came to London as an au pair, to find refuge from the war while she improved her English.

The standard image of an au pair is a French or German girl in her teens improving her language skills before going on to university or marriage. I have just such an au pair - Swiss, 20, very sweet, competent with my two small children. Au pairs, like starlings, flock together; if you have an au pair, you meet scores of them. It has dawned on me, meeting all these girls, that the standard image is now hopelessly out of date. For one thing, young women from EU countries have a right to work here, and often choose to be waitresses or barmaids instead of doing chores in someone else's home.

The representative au pair of the 1990s is a young woman from Eastern Europe - many from the former Yugoslavia - coming to Britain not for a pleasant interlude in a foreign place, but because of the lack of opportunities at home. In their desperation, some of them are, quite simply, being abused.

Sophie Vladovic was one of the lucky ones. She worked in Fulham, caring for four-year-old James - and it was a great success. She has applied for refugee status and is studying part-time; some day she hopes to go home.

But some of Sophie's friends were not so lucky: they were forced to work 12-hour days, with full responsibility for small children, both conditions flagrant abuses of the au pair code. Home Office guidelines recommend the au pair engages in "light household tasks" for 30 hours a week over six days, for a maximum payment of £35. They must be between 17 and 27; they can stay for up to two years; they pay their own travel and language tuition costs; they are entitled to use the National Health Service.

These guidelines are not enforced. A Home Office spokeswoman said that it was not the ministry's responsibility to "police" employers. "Correct immigration status is our concern," she said. If an au pair was unhappy with a family, she should seek another one. But, the spokeswoman warned, the paperwork had to be amended accordingly.

This approach is out of date. If au pairs have changed, so have the families they stay with. With more women working outside the home, au pairs are being asked, or ordered, to put in longer hours. They are sometimes paid extra for them, sometimes not.

Others have an easier, if unconventional, time. One au pair I know lives with a single woman with no children: she is a kind of Girl Friday, cleaning, shopping, helping to prepare dinner parties. Another, rather bewildered, girl told me she worked for a couple with no children: her main domestic responsibility was to look after the cat. This involved cooking up fresh fish meals for Snowy: no tins allowed. "I have plenty of time for my studies," she told me cheerfully.

As long as both sides play by the rules, au pairing is a pleasant experience for the au pair - and, for the host family, one of the best bargains around. Au pairs can take that final yard of drudgery out of the raising of small children. They are expected to baby-sit two nights a week (for no extra pay). This is a great luxury for parents. The kids are comfortable with the person they are being left with; you don't have to dash home to relieve the sitter (and you don't add £20 to the bill for your evening's entertainment).

It is not all rosy. Most families who have had a string of au pairs will admit to at least one dud. Homesickness is the obvious problem, followed by the two B's - boredom and boyfriends.

Marilyn Schroeder runs a London au pair agency, Family Friend, which specialises in placing girls from the former Yugoslavia, mostly Croatia. She insists the au pair-abuse stories are exaggerated - on both sides. "Some families expect an au pair to do too much, but then some girls are naughty. There are usually three versions of the story - hers, theirs and the truth."

But what stories! Even allowing for exaggeration and imagination from aggrieved au pairs, it seems some British families have not grasped that the term "au pair" means "on the same level" - ie, part of the family, and not some latter-day drudge from the days of service. My favourite story - believe it or not, as you will - is one told by a French au pair (there are still some left). She insists she was allocated a fixed amount of lavatory paper each day: the date was marked on the 10th piece and there was trouble if she exceeded her limit. One family allowed the au pair to drink only tap-water. Another would not share the chocolate biscuits. They kept a supply of cheap biscuits just for the "girl".

Jane Sharpington, a television newsroom manager, is an experienced employer of au pairs. She feels there is only one secret worth passing on: keep your au pair happy. "A happy au pair means a happy home and a happy child,"' she says. "I have a good relationship with one agency, and agencies like to have reliable families on their books. My husband and I check the references carefully, looking for words like `warm', `loving', `reliable' and `trustworthy'." She also insists on a brief telephone conversation with the prospective au pair.

Elizabeth Kelly of Battersea believes she has a short cut: she makes a point of hiring au pairs who are already in Britain but who are unhappy with their host family. "They are always so grateful to be treated properly that I haven't had a problem." Another useful tip is to ask your au pair to go through the applications for her successor and weed out likely troublemakers. Generally speaking, the older the better.

If you do pick an au pair from former Yugoslavia, remember she is a family member, not a quasi-slave. Sophie Vladovic's friend Ivana, a competent and intelligent Croatian girl, was thrown out on to the street by her host - a single mother for whom she had worked a 12-hour day. Ivana suspects the mother became jealous of the time she was spending with the child.

Sophie Vladovic said: "I have several friends who are working 12-hour days for no extra money. But, you know, they are happy to go along with it. They are even grateful. They have a room to themselves in a safe home. They have food and warmth. They hope somehow to stay on in Britain. They are no longer in Yugoslavia."

Many of these girls find ways of not going home (some, like Sophie, legally; others not so legally). This, if nothing else does, might persuade the Home Office to review its lackadais-ical approach to its own au pair guidelines. With good will, the au pair system can work, on both sides, as well as it ever did - but not if it slides into immigration-law-busting drudgery.