COPENHAGEN, Denmark—At the hospital, they served her flæskesteg, a special Danish roast pork that is usually reserved for special celebrations like Christmas.
But it was the middle of spring and an unusually sunny day in Copenhagen and Christy (not her real name) was not sure if there was reason to celebrate.
The hospital room seemed too big for the petite new mother and the tiny newborn she absentmindedly rocked in her arms. Silence filled the room; there was no sound of lullabies, no throng of wellwishers or family members cooing and gushing over the arrival of a new baby.
There was no excited father hovering over his newborn, relishing his active role in childcare after months of waiting.
Christy was alone, an undocumented migrant in Denmark with a baby to look after.
For close to a year, Christy had been living in Denmark without a valid work permit, trying to remain under the radar of Danish immigration authorities to avoid being deported and sent back to the Philippines.
“Hindi ko akalain na ganito ang mangyayari. Gusto ko lang sana magtrabaho, tulungan pamilya ko, makaipon, tapos bumalik sa Pilipinas,” said the 28-year-old. Her voice cracked and she stammered but she did now allow herself to cry.
(I never thought that things would turn out this way. I just wanted to work, help out my family, save a bit, and then go back home to the Philippines.)
Back in her hometown in southern Philippines, Christy had what would be considered a bright future. She graduated with a Nursing degree and had passed the board. She thought she had what was needed to work and give her parents, who were both farmers, a better life.
But it wasn’t going to be that simple.
At the hospital, she accepted work as a volunteer, hoping it would be a stepping stone to a regular job.
When that did not work out, she tried her luck working in a call center. It was better pay, but her friend and a cousin—both former au pairs—told her she would be missing out if she did not try being an au pair in Denmark.
Au pair, French for on “equal terms,” is a cultural exchange program where young persons under 30 could immerse themselves in a foreign culture and language by living with a host family. They are to supposed to be treated as members of the family.
Christy had already heard about being an au pair on Facebook. Friends in Denmark were always posting pictures of themselves bundled up in fluffy scarves and coats zipped up to their ears. It seemed that they were always exploring parks and lakes around Copenhagen.
It looked like so much fun to be an au pair, to be on a cultural exchange program where you only had to babysit and do light household chores for your host family for about 5 hours a day. In exchange, you get a monthly allowance of DKK 3,250 ($485 or P22,786), room and board, and get to live in Europe.
Christy was making almost as much at her call center job, but her cousin assured her she could make much more by taking on “black jobs,” cleaning homes for an hourly rate.
“Malaki daw ang kita sa kuskos, saka siyempre Europe,” said Christy. (I heard there’s a lot of money to be made from scrubbing, and well, it’s Europe.)
“Kuskos” is the Filipino word for scrub, the shorthand slang for scrubbing the toilet and code for cleaning jobs on the side. This is strictly forbidden—the au pair risks deportation—but everyone was doing it, you just have to be discreet, her cousin told her.
That was enough to convince Christy.
Never having been out of the country before, never having traveled alone before, Christy left her call center job and set off for Denmark to be an au pair in 2013.
From one host family to another
Denmark amazed Christy. Everyone was on a bike. The city’s colors and people’s clothing changed with the seasons. It was cold but she was sure that was something she would easily get used to.
Getting used to her first host family proved to be more difficult.
“They made me work all the time. When I first arrived, the host mother made me work already. If I caught the flu or worse from one of the 3 kids, I was still expected to work,” she recalled.
Christy left a few months after and found another host family within the allowed one-month grace period.
The second host family did not make her work as much, but were always fighting.
“Sinisigawan siya ng asawa niya kahit sa harapan ng ibang tao. Madalas, ako ‘yung nabubuntungan ng babae.” (Her husband would shout at her even in front of other people. Often, the host mother would redirect her anger at me.)
Christy stuck it out for 6 months before leaving.
The arrangement with the third host family fell through even before it started. Christy thinks it's because of the family's financial situation.
Applying for another third host family would be risky. Under the current au pair program, an au pair can change host families a maximum of 3 times. The Danish Immigration authorities would deny subsequent applications.
If things did not work out with a third host family, Christy would have no choice but to go back to the Philippines—and that was not an option for Christy or for her family.
Her parents and younger brother had grown used to receiving as much P80,000 a month, money that Christy made doing kuskos jobs on weekends and holidays.
She borrowed money to pay for her visa expenses and her plane ticket, and paid off the debt in 3 months. She was luckier than the other au pairs in Denmark who paid as much as P60,000 to find a host family and take care of travel arrangements.
Some enterprising au pairs have decided to cut out the middlemen and keep the referral fee for themselves.
“I was lucky my friend referred me to her host family as her replacement for free. Some au pairs ask to be paid for referring you to their host family,” Christy explained.
DH wanted, DH expected
An au pair’s work permit and living arrangements are contingent on the sponsorship of a host family.
Without a host family, Christy could stay in Denmark for the validity of her visa, but she would not be allowed to work. And for Christy, working and making money–rather than a cultural exchange–was the whole point of being an au pair.
So she went underground. She already had a network of kuskos jobs, her sideline became her main source of income.
“There is already an expectation for domestic work as an au pair. It is a cultural exchange only on paper, but in reality, they are domestic helpers,” said Jean Gocotano, au pair spokesperson for the Fag og Arbejde (FOA), one of the largest labor unions in Denmark and one of the 3 agencies that form the Au Pair Network.
Gocotano was a former au pair herself who came to Denmark in 2010 after working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. “My host family specified that their au pair should have previous experience doing domestic work.”
FAO, the Au Pair Network, and other organizations are fighting for more protection for au pairs especially in the case of termination.
“It is just cheap labor,” said Patricio Valenzuela of Migrante Denmark.
Valenzuela, one of the pioneer Filipino migrants in Denmark, works closely with Gocotano and the Au Pair Network helping au pairs in trouble. Whether or not an au pair gets along with her host family, when they ask her to leave or when they no longer need her, an au pair is left without a roof over her head.
“We’ve had to go out in the middle of the night sometimes to pick up an au pair at the train station. Minsan pa, ang kapal kapal na snow, pupuntahan namin. Kasi saan nga naman siya pupunta?” asked Valenzuela. (Sometimes we’ve had to go out in thick, thick snow to rescue an au pair. Because where would she go if we didn’t help her?)
“As an au pair, you don’t have a work permit. The living-in obligation is one that has some built-in problems,” said Helle Stenum, a researcher who has done extensive studies on the au pair program. Under these conditions, Stenum said au pairs tend to be “more docile and put up with much more, and are easier to exploit.”
In 1998, the Philippine government unilaterally banned the au pair program because of reports of sexual abuse, exploitation, harassment, and withheld wages.
But the au pairs continued to arrive. Some of them first went to Denmark on a tourist visa then looked for a host family to sponsor them as au pairs.
Some countries like Denmark and Norway ignored the ban and continued to issue au pair visas. To avoid being offloaded at the airport, some paid the services of an “escort”, an airport official, to help them get past Philippine immigration.
Eva, a former au pair from Bacolod, paid her escort P20,000 in 2008.
She was 19 then, and had just graduated with a business degree. Like Christy, her cousin who was a former au pair told her that it was an opportunity not to be missed.
“I was a fresh grad and had no work experience. Earning a significant amount of money and helping out my mother was a big thing to me,” said Eva in a mix of English and Filipino. “Besides, it was Europe. If I was going to be a domestic helper, I might as well be one in Europe.”
Eva’s cousin referred her to an escort whom she communicated with only through text message. “I was told to go to the ladies’ room in the airport. Someone would meet me there and I was to hand over P20,000.”
That person made sure Eva passed through Philippine immigration without a hitch.
But problems started to arise in Denmark.
Eva’s first host family withheld her wages for a month. “They were always fighting and one of the things they fought about was who was going to pay for my allowance. I was caught in the middle of their fights.”
When Eva followed up or tried to complain about her late wages, her host family would make subtle hints about “just letting her go back to the Philippines.”
“It was so unfair. I felt like I had no choice but to stay with them.”
Friends helped Eva look for another host family and report the first one to the immigration authorities. With the support of her second host family, she was able to raise her complaint to authorities and her back wages were paid in full.
It was partly because of these continued abuses that the Philippines and Denmark forged a bilateral agreement with better protection in place for au pairs. In 2010, the Philippines lifted the ban.
Today, the Philippines remains to be the top source of au pairs to Denmark.
In 2014, the Danish Immigration commissioned a study to look into the au pair program. As a result of that study, reforms were put in place to improve it.
In July 2015, a new “improved au pair scheme” was introduced. The reforms included increasing the monthly allowance to 4,000 Danish Kroner (equivalent to $600), a clear division of household chores and leisure time. Additionally, the host family is now required to pay for the au pair’s plane fare to Denmark.
But that doesn’t help au pairs who are terminated by their host families or those like Christy who overstayed her visa and is now effectively an undocumented migrant.
Gocotano said that the new law also does not apply to those who arrived before it was enacted in July 2015.
The current pressures of the European refugee crisis make for a wary and even hostile attitude toward migrants. There are reports of raids by the police to deport undocumented migrants. Those who help them or shelter them will be sanctioned with stiff fines and penalties.
Oppressive and abusive
As an au pair, Christy is not supposed to get pregnant. Not having children is part of the conditions in the au pair contract. If an au pair got pregnant, she would be deported.
“Pregnancy here is considered ‘not in accordance with the purpose of an au pair stay’. So au pairs who get pregnant have de facto faced deportation, which of course leads to heavy pressure to conceal pregnancies or not complete them,” said Andreas Riis, au pair coordinator for Caritas Denmark.
Laws softened in 2015 to accommodate United Nations conventions on human rights and Danish equality laws. Now an au pair would be allowed to stay in Denmark even while pregnant, give birth, and stay for up to 2 months after—but only if her host family permitted it.
But Christy no longer had a host family and a valid residence permit, making her stay even more precarious.
Under Danish law, if the man doesn’t acknowledge paternity, women like Christy can file a paternity case and wait it out which—depending on the man’s cooperation—might take years.
The father of Christy’s baby is Danish—her boyfriend. She is unsure whether or not to refer to him as an ex-boyfriend now.
The morning after their first date, Christy awoke with a vague recollection of being stripped of her clothes, of saying “no” and that “it hurt”, but her flailing arms were as weak as her voice.
“Hindi ‘ko alam kung may nilagay siya sa drink ko o hindi lang ako sanay.” (I don’t know if he put something in my drink or if I’m just not used to drinking.) It was not how Christy imagined she would lose her virginity.
She avoided him for two weeks, hiding out with a friend whose host family didn’t mind—at first.
He pursued her and wooed her, offering to let her move in with him. It was protection she wanted and shelter she badly needed.
It was a troubled relationship that confused Christy. He was emotionally oppressive and physically abusive but also caring and affectionate. He made her dinner and told her to rest while he washed the dishes, but called her stupid if she misunderstood something he said.
He dismissed her pregnancy cravings for a taste of Filipino food and beat her when he came home to the aroma of rice being cooked.
When Christy was first admitted to the hospital it was not because she was in labor, it was because he had badly beaten her. She gave birth shortly after.
Christy is confused about what to do, but mostly, she’s just afraid for her and her child. If her boyfriend acknowledges paternity that will make things a lot easier, but she knows it will come with expectations.
“Ayoko na siyang balikan. Alam ko hindi siya magbabago, sasaktan niya ako ulit. Pero ano ang choice ko?” (I don’t want to go back to him. I know he won’t change; he will hurt me again. But what choice do I have?)
The silence in the hospital room became oppressing. The TV was on but the volume was on mute; the programs were mostly in Danish and Christy could not understand them.
The uncertainty of the future loomed ahead. The exhaustion from round-the-clock nursing and not having anyone but the nurse to watch over her baby–whenever she needed to go to the bathroom or take a bath–was becoming too much to bear.
Christy looked down at the infant in her arms.
“I know this is my child, but...” her voice cracked and Christy finally let her tears fall. “Why can’t I feel it? Why can't I, I, enjoy being a mother?”