Au pair program is no ‘cultural exchange’

As thousands of families in Maryland get ready to send kids to school next week, many are welcoming au pairs into their homes.

It’s easy to romanticize the life of the more than 20,000 au pairs who arrive in the U.S. every year.

They will learn English, make friends, travel. They will become members of an American family.

But for many au pairs, that depiction couldn’t be further from reality. Sponsor agencies, which connect au pairs with host families, have profited from masquerading the program as a cultural exchange.

My organization has spoken with dozens of au pairs and investigated the program alongside labor and migrant rights organizations. Working as an au pair is as much a cultural exchange as waiting tables is a culinary experience.

The au pair program is one of 14 programs managed by the U.S. Department of State under the J-1 visa program to promote cultural exchange. Au pairs are internationally recruited caregivers, mostly women, between the ages of 18 and 26. Only last year, Maryland greeted over 1,200 au pairs to live with a host family to provide childcare while attending a postsecondary educational institution.

The program is rife with absurd paradoxes. Sponsor agencies charge as much as $3,000 for the promise of a cultural exchange. These fees are exorbitant for women recruited in Mexico, where fees amount to over 21 months of minimum wage earnings.

Even at its best, au pairs report that work is the dominant element of their experience. According to regulations, an au pair hired under the J-1 program provides childcare services for no more than 10 hours a day or 45 hours a week. She receives one weekend off per month and one-and-a-half days off per week.

Yet, she will be paid $4.35 per hour — less than half of our state’s minimum wage.

To bypass minimum wage standards, sponsor agencies downplay the labor component. They claim that the family will provide the au pair with room and board — that she will become “a member of the host family.” Au pairs claim that this label obstructs their access to worker protections.

For some host parents, treating an au pair like a new daughter means that they can ground her, limiting access to her phone or internet. As a big sister, an au pair may always have to be on-call, available to babysit anytime without being paid overtime. In her role as just another sibling, she might be expected to partake in household chores that were not stipulated in her contract, like cleaning and gardening, that would otherwise be done by another paid employee.

Local counselors, employed by sponsor agencies to address and monitor disputes, use this rhetoric to dismiss au pairs’ complaints as if abuses were family feuds.

These complaints are sometimes cases of exploitation, forced labor and trafficking. We heard such first-hand accounts from au pairs we interviewed for our recent report Shortchanged: The Big Businesses Behind the Low Wage J-1 Au Pair Program. Caregivers were consistently threatened and intimidated. Their host parents refused to pay for their classes, withheld their salary and surveilled them. Some hosts prohibited au pairs from taking breaks or even using the restroom; others sexually harassed au pairs.

Sponsor agencies argue that only a few program participants have unfortunate experiences. However, the problem with the au pair program is structural.

Far from a cultural exchange, the J-1 au pair program is like other temporary labor migration programs in which recruiters and employers hold unparalleled control over workers in part due to high recruitment fees. Internationally recruited workers across visa categories and industries take on debts in order to secure job opportunities in the U.S., leaving them to make the impossible decision between remaining in abusive conditions and returning to insurmountable debt.

Eliminating recruitment fees for all internationally recruited workers is a first step in preventing debt bondage and economic coercion. As the sixth largest destination for au pairs in the United States, Maryland must protect J-1 au pairs — who provide essential childcare support — from recruitment abuse, trafficking and exploitation. No one should have to pay to work.

Calling the au pair program a cultural exchange is not a harmless romanticization. We’re in the midst of heated national debates about compassionate immigration policies and fair labor standards. Not only does this program facilitate abuse — it blatantly undermines childcare providers and internationally recruited workers.

Rachel Micah-Jones (rachel@cdmigrante.org) is the founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. and the chair of the International Labor Recruitment Working Group.

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