Working as an au pair in France has lots of advantages, but it also comes with the challenge of choosing the right host family and negotiating a fair work contract.
In order to get a visa to come to France, you’re going to have to establish a set of working hours and identify the services you’ll perform for the family in order to earn your keep. And there are lots of families (certainly not all!) who are more than willing to take advantage of inexperienced young women to write the contract in their own favor.
Here are seven things you should watch out for when looking for a host family:
1) “We don’t declare our au pairs…”
Like any job in France, an au pair job requires a valid work contract between the host family and the student to protect both parties. The contract not only defines work hours and pay, it is also a legal document that is required for you to get an au pair visa.
When a family tells you that they “don’t declare their au pairs,” it often means that they are trying to get out of paying social taxes of €534 per month on your earnings. If anything were to happen and you didn’t have a full work contract, you wouldn’t be covered for health insurance or even work accidents that could happen while you’re working.
Even if you’re already in France with another type of visa, and looking to get a job as an au pair to get housing and meals, having a declared work contract protects you in case the family doesn’t want to respect other aspects of French law, like limiting your work hours. Preferring to hire an undeclared au pair often means they’ll skimp on the other legalities as well.
2) “We prefer to have a flexible schedule…”
Your work hours, legally mandated days off, and number of vacation days should be described in your work contract, and followed as closely as possible. It’s one thing to be flexible with each other once a relationship is established. It’s another for the family to refuse to set a schedule in favor of a “we’ll let you know when we need you” sort of deal.
The danger of the “flexible schedule” is that you’ll end up working far more hours than are included in your contract, to the point where you won’t know when you’re working and when you’re off. This is especially dangerous if your room is in the family’s apartment, rather than a separate chambre de bonne, as it’s almost impossible to extricate yourself from family life and taking care of the kids if the parents don’t take charge when they’re home.
Have an established schedule written out in your work contract, and stick to it – unless you and the family negotiate changes that are mutually agreeable.
3) “Our au pairs usually don’t speak French as well as you do…”
If a family usually has au pairs who don’t speak French, a major red flag should go up. Sure, some families like to expose their kids to different cultures, but others like the fact that their au pair doesn’t speak French, because it means the au pair is entirely dependent on them for everything.
An au pair who doesn’t speak French will have a hard time going to the Conseil des Prud’hommes to sue for abusive work conditions, and probably won’t even know that such a structure exists.
In conjunction with other “red flags,” this one means that the family might be particular demanding and won’t necessarily WANT you to be able to communicate with the kids, with people in the school, and with others in France.
4) “Our last au pair was from (insert developing country here)…”
Like families that prefer non-French speaking au pairs, families that often have au pairs from developing countries tend to be more conservative, more demanding, and even possibly more racist. The truth is, the people who can afford to have au pairs in Paris – paying €800 per month plus having an extra room in a Parisian apartment – tend to be traditional “old wealth” families. That in itself doesn’t mean they’re conservative and racist, of course.
This is a “red flag” you’ll have to tread lightly on – evaluating the family based on the whole impression they give rather than on this statement alone. But it’s true that when families hire au pairs from countries with less strict labor laws, they often count on getting a built-in maid and nanny who won’t complain or assert themselves.
In other words, they get used to being able to impose extra work for free.
It’s an observable phenomenon in the nicer Paris neighborhoods that there are lots of minority women immigrants pushing the strollers of little white babies in designer clothes. Take that to mean what you will.
5) “We expect you to do some chores around the house…”
As an au pair, your primary duty is to take care of the children – picking them up from school, making them a snack, taking them to extracurricular activities on Wednesday afternoons. While it’s not unreasonable to expect you to clean up after yourself (if you live in the family’s home) or to do the dishes when you make the kids a meal, the family should not impose extra chores on you like laundry or cleaning.
Make sure that your job duties are clearly defined in your work contract, and avoid phrases like “light cleaning” and “other duties as requested by the host family.” You want to avoid becoming a full time maid as well as a nanny, so make sure that the boundaries are clear. If you want to do something extra like unload the dishwasher, do it occasionally to be nice – but don’t allow the family to expect it.
6) “You’ll bring the kids to school, make them at lunch, and pick them up after school…”
An au pair contract limits you to 30 hours of work per week, and your specific work schedule should be mutually determined and written in your work contract.
Generally speaking, a 30-hour per week contract should allow you to have a life – meaning that you shouldn’t always be working. In most cases, the 30 hours will be covered after school – 4:30 – 8 on weekdays, plus all day on Wednesdays, sometimes even 8-8.
But schools in France also let out for lunch, meaning that it’s quite possible that the family will ask you to pick up the kids from school at 11:30, make them lunch, and bring them back at 1:30. Sure, it’s 8 hours of time, but it’s in the middle of the day. If the family has you drop the kids off, pick them up for lunch, and then pick them up from school at 4:30, you won’t be able to do anything else during the week.
7) “Your curfew will be…”
I haven’t had a curfew since high school, and I certainly wouldn’t accept having one as an adult. Once you’re off the clock, you’re free to go out and do whatever you want, and you should have a key to the house to let yourself back in. Beware of any family that tries to control your non-working hours or prevent you from having a life outside of working for them.