Now that the school summer break is upon us, many working parents in Hong Kong are tearing their hair out trying to find someone to look after their children at home while they are at work.
The au pair, an idea that has caught on in the United States and Europe in recent years, could be a good option.
The term, which comes from a French phrase meaning equality and mutual benefit, refers to someone, often an exchange student, coming from abroad on a special visa who stays in a host family as a homestay guest and helps to take care of the family’s children.
In return, the au pair gets paid and is protected by labor laws.
One advantage of au pairs over traditional domestic helpers is that they have been trained to take care of children.
They can also teach them a foreign language and, by interacting with the host family as a family member rather than just a babysitter, the au pair can facilitate cultural exchange with the children, which can enrich their upbringing and help them develop a more positive personality.
The au pair has become so popular in the US that the State Department has introduced the J-1 visa tailor-made for them.
Any foreigner between the age of 18 to 26 who has completed high school, can speak fluent English and has passed background checks and interviews is allowed to stay in the country for at least one year.
Upon expiry, the J-1 visa is renewable.
To make sure these young people can take care of the children of the host families properly, they have to undergo a minimum of 32 hours of training in childcare.
They are paid at least US$196 a week and are entitled to 1.5 days off each week.
It is estimated that in 2014, the US government granted more than 16,000 J-1 visas to au pairs from Europe, Latin America and Asia.
Given the intense shortage of daycare for children in Hong Kong and a surge in complaints about foreign domestic helpers, the introduction of the au pair may provide working families with a viable alternative to foreign domestic helpers when it comes to looking for someone to take care of their children.
The question is, is our government willing to review the existing law and break down red tape so as to accommodate a “new” option for childcare?
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 29.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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