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Cultural learning: Filipina au pairs in Danish homes

Project description

Since the mid 1990s, the Danish au pair scheme has attracted an increasing number of foreign women to Denmark. While au pairs previously came mostly from Western countries, Filipina women represent the majority of foreign au pairs today, 2,165 being granted a residence permit in 2009 (The Danish Immigration Service 2010).

Officially, the au pair scheme seeks to provide young people with an opportunity to learn about Danish society, improve their language skills, and expand their cultural horizons. Au pairs are supposed to live with a sponsoring host family, where they are to perform between 18 and 30 hours of light domestic work a week. In return they are entitled to receive a minimum of DKK 3,050 in pocket money monthly, plus board and lodging.

Au pairs can be granted temporary residence permits valid for up to 24 months. They are supposed to be treated as members of their host families, and not being entitled to work permits the Danish authorities do not perceive them as labor migrants. Consequently, au pairs are not protected by the laws regulating wage labor, but they are expected to be safeguarded by social conventions of family life. However, according to previous studies among au pairs, a majority of both Philippine au pairs and host families consider au pairing as being primarily a work arrangement (Stenum 2008).

Most Philippine au pairs in Denmark support their family members financially via the pocket money they earn in Denmark. Besides of important contributions to the sustainment of parents’ livelihood in the Philippines, it is common that Philippine au pairs finance college educations of younger siblings via their remittances.

For some au pairs the au pair stay in Denmark is understood as a gap year abroad, however for most au pairs staying in Denmark it is part of more long-term migration processes. There are au pairs arriving directly after they have finished or partly finished their college education in the Philippines, where as others also have experience as labor migrants either within the Philippines or from working abroad in Middle Eastern or other Asian countries. Additionally, a report has shown that the Filipina au pairs mostly perceive their stay in Denmark as a stepping stone for further migrations, however for some au pairs the Danish au pair stay also opens for family reunion via marriage, a work permit or access to the Danish educational system (Korsby 2010).

Whether Philippine au pairs dream of a better future in the Philippines, in Denmark or in a third country, this project explores the strategies used by au pairs in their aspiration for social and economic mobility for themselves and their family members. What competences do au pairs achieve during their stay in Denmark? And how can they use these skills when they strive to fulfill their ambitions? Further more, the project explores what kind of social relations these young Philippine migrants create to members of their host families, to other Filipinas in Denmark and to their family members in the Philippines. This is done in order to understand the significance these social ties have for au pairs’ mobility strategies.

The research for this project started in September 2010 by exploring the history of the au pair scheme and discourses surrounding au pairing in a Danish context. Using methods such as qualitative interviews, life story interviews and participant observation among current and former au pairs in the Copenhagen area, the fieldwork started more intensively in the spring 2011. Focusing on family ties and different understandings of “learning”, the fieldwork is still ongoing, and will continue on the Philippine island Bohol from February to April 2012.

The project is carried out by PhD fellow Karina Märcher Dalgas, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.