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study abroad spain barcelona palm trees beach summer sunny tropical
Cameron Smith / Her Campus

Au pairing… An enriching experience or exploitation?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nottingham chapter.

What is an au pair?

An au pair is someone who comes from a different country and lives and works for a host family by taking care of their children. In return, the au pair is provided with free accommodation and food while being paid ‘pocket money’ which usually equates to 70 euros a week. 

This is how I spent my summer, living in Madrid for six weeks and then moving onto Malaga and working as an au pair for a different family for the last three weeks of summer.

The first family I stayed with for six weeks came with the task of au pairing for two children. My time with them was very challenging, the children were rude and would constantly show their disrespect towards me by either completely ignoring me or swearing at me in Spanish. I complained about this to their parents and was often ignored. I decided to leave this family after the mother decided to shout at me in front of her children following a miscommunication on her part. On my exit from their flat, the mother underpaid me the agreed amount by 50 euros, hoping I would not notice as she cowardly pushed scrunched-up bank notes into my hand. 

My experience with them and similar stories I heard from other au pairs highlighted how common this is, many families will only view you as cheap childcare and will treat you in this way.

I had a far better time with the family in Malaga, au pairing for two pre-teen girls who came from a lovely family and spent their summers in a traditional farmhouse, swimming daily in their grandparents’ pool which overlooked the Andalusian coast. I bonded with their grandmother and while there, she made some of the best food I have ever eaten. She very much treated me like part of the family, even though our communication was limited by a language barrier. Here, the family grew and sold their own fruit and vegetables to large corporations. Allowing me the opportunity to gorge on stacks of the freshest seafood, fruits and vegetables, later walking it off as I made the 5-minute stroll to the beach every day.

One of the many negatives of au pairing is the lack of freedom you find yourself with while living under someone else’s rules.

I met other au pairs who shared with me their stories of the poor treatment they faced while abroad, with one au pairing telling me the child she was looking after began to hit her and the parents did not stop this.

I met au pair girls who went through agencies, paying them a few hundred euros which provided them with additional support and background checks, something I wish I had done.

Part of the deal is that you are left to take care of multiple children for the equivalent of around £2 an hour. Many times, the hours you are supposed to be working do drag on, and parents will offload their children onto you for more than what is contracted. 

There are no protections for au pairs, with the story of another au pair girl I made friends with finding herself homeless after she decided to leave the family she was working with early, seeing them kick her out on the spot.

While there were negative aspects of my experience as an au pair, there were still many enjoyable moments. Au pairing really pushed me out of my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to explore some of the most beautiful places in Spain. 

Au pairing is a great opportunity to learn a new language or improve skills, with my knowledge and understanding of Spanish developing from non-existent to an intermediate level.

I was able to use my free time in the evenings and weekends to take advantage of the best Madrid had to offer, but I was also able to travel to other major cities like Valencia and Granada. I spent time walking through the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona and going for dinner with a twerk teacher from Colombia whom I met an hour earlier while watching the sunset in Park Guell. 

While in Spain, I made many friends from across the world, like the French girl I met in my first week of living in Madrid, who later came to my aid by offering me a room in her house when I had decided to leave the family in Madrid, a person who I still consider to be a friend.

My experience was so mixed with many enriching aspects but I do believe au pairing to be exploitation. Your experience with this is definitely dependent on whether you are stuck with a challenging family, where the kids are disrespectful and the parents view you to be worthy of the worst treatment, or a welcoming family who treat you as one of their own. It was an experience that I will never forget, one that has enabled me with lifelong skills and allowed me to explore Spain. 

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Dara Radakovic

Nottingham '24

Third year History student studying at The University of Nottingham.