Why au pairs work for many mining parents (and their kids)
When Vicki Zafiris wanted to return to work after the birth of her children, an au pair was her saviour. The secondary school teacher is now spreading the word about the relatively unknown use of au pairs in Australia, to help other working mums and dads out there. Here, the passionate working mum answers our questions...
Q: What is an au pair?
A: An au pair is a young man or woman who assists a family with childcare and light housekeeping. They are usually live in and are not qualified. Most au pairs are from overseas and au pairing is a way for them to be able to experience another culture within a family and realise their dreams of travel and adventure.
Q: Tell us about your own experiences with au pairs and why you’re so passionate about promoting their use in Australia?
A: My experiences with au pairs have been overwhelmingly positive. Having an au pair has made my transition back to work much easier and my children have benefited immensely from having another adult role model in their lives. I am passionate about promoting au pairs in Australia because amongst other things, they are the most flexible form of childcare.
Q: What are the pros and cons of hiring an au pair?
A: There are many benefits to hiring an au pair. These include flexibility, parents can schedule an au pair to work when it suits them best (unlike traditional childcare which is usually only accessible during the day), it is cost effective and the children are looked after in their own home allowing individual attention to be given.
I spoke with Regina from Perth, a part-time property manager whose husband is a FIFO worker. She chose to host au pairs to look after her children (now four and two) as she felt it was the most flexible, cost-effective solution to her child care needs. She has hosted au pairs from Germany, Hong Kong and Taiwan and is about to welcome a new au pair from France. Regina feels one of the things she enjoys the most about hosting au pairs is the cultural exchange. "My children have learnt to read in German and can also say some words in Taiwanese!" she said. "I am really looking forward to them learning some French and cooking some French meals with our next au pair."
One of the added benefits of hosting an au pair is that it frees up the family's time to do the things they really enjoy. Parents can even schedule a date night to spend some time on their own without the children. "We are happy now – before we weren’t happy as we had no free time for each other – now we do," says Regina.
The cons include (to a certain extent) a loss of the family’s privacy, and an extra room must be available. The family must also have the right attitude with regard to meeting the au pair’s objectives as well as their own. Families must remember that it must be a win-win situation on both sides. The au pair's need to make friends, travel and experience Australia must be met if it is to be a successful match.
"Some families forget that their au pair is here to experience the Australian lifestyle, make friends and travel." Regina warns. Obviously if someone unsuited to working with children is chosen then this can have negative consequences, however with the right reference checking and interviewing techniques, this can be avoided.
Families must also note that au pairs are not trained childcare workers, and should therefore spend time training au pairs in the basics of behaviour management, household duties, child hygiene, safety and so on.
Q: Why do you think mining families would benefit from au pairs?
A: For those families who move to remote locations where childcare is limited or unavailable, au pairs are an excellent solution. Jo Barron-Perry is a senior mining engineer who spent the past six years living in Paraburdoo in the Pilbara of Western Australia. "When we lived in Paraburdoo, we had difficulty with quality, flexible, consistent and reliable childcare. When my daughter became of school age there was no out-of-school-hours care."
For families where one partner is FIFO, an au pair can provide valued company and assistance for the parent who is left to deal with the kids and child-related chores on their own. (Regina particularly enjoys having an adult to spend her evenings with when her husband is away working. “I mean, you always have your kids to talk to but you can’t watch Sex and the City with them!” she jokes.)
Jo now lives in Adelaide and her husband is a FIFO worker. “With me flying to the mine site weekly, the au pair is an integral part of our busy lives.”
Finally, if the family is moving frequently, the au pair can provide children with much-needed carer continuity.
Q: How does the current system work?
A: Most au pairs live in and are provided with their own room and meals. Ideally they have their own bathroom, or share one with the children. The family is responsible for orienting the au pair and some initial training (the children’s routines, cooking of meals and so forth). Families also pay the au pairs a weekly sum dependent on age, qualifications, experience and the level of responsibility required.
Q: Are au pairs traditionally from overseas? Do Australian families need to organise visas or adhere to any regulations?
A: Au pairs are traditionally sourced from overseas and can work in exchange of room and board on a tourist visa, or for room and board plus pay on a working holiday visa for a maximum of six months with the same family. Au pairs from eligible countries can arrange these visas online.
Q: What does their work entail day-to-day?
A: The majority of the au pair’s work is directly childcare related including supervision of children, playing games/sports and assisting with homework. The Au Pair might also complete tasks such as children’s laundry and ironing, keeping child areas neat and clean and prepare meals. The family might also negotiate a contribution to the general household such as emptying the dishwasher or cooking the family meal.
Q: How do Australian families go about hiring au pairs? Are agencies the best avenue?
A: Families can hire an au pair by using an internet matching service where the profiles of au pairs can be viewed and the family makes contact, interviews and completes reference checks. The advantage of this is a potentially wider range of applicants and the family has control of the entire process. The downside is that it is very time consuming and families do not have access to support or advice.
For time-poor families, agencies may be a better choice as the necessary checks will be conducted by the agency. These au pairs have already committed to making the trip to Australia and with a reputable agency, the family has access to information and support and the au pair has completed an orientation course with the agency.
- Au Pair Families in Australia (A page where you can learn more about hosting an au pair and pose questions that Vicki is happy to answer. You can also see a list of au pairs seeking families.)
- Au Pairs in Australia (An Australia-wide page for au pairs where you can post that your family is seeking an au pair.)
Groups for advice and support in capital cities:
Other ideas for business-minded mums: