The Big Business of Exploiting Au Pairs

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A lack of federal oversight has led to flagrant abuses of international students who come to the United States to care for children for low pay, according to “Shortchanged,” a report released this week. Now, immigrant advocacy groups are pressuring for change.

Au pairs, most of whom are women, are each charged as much as $2,500 to participate in what placement agencies and the State Department describe as a “cultural exchange” program for young people looking to practice their English and learn about American culture. Under the J-1 visa program, au pairs are placed in a home by a sponsor company and are tasked with caring for the host family's children, much like a live-in nanny.

Unlike live-in nannies, however, au pairs have no guaranteed sick days or federal holidays. They earn a flat wage of $4.35 an hour after sponsor agencies deduct room and board from their pay, which lands them at $195.75 a week for 45 hours of work.

The au pair program has grown from a few child-care workers arriving from Europe in 1986 to more than 17,000 participants from six continents in 2015. But as the number of au pairs continues to surge, so does the number of complaints.

Critics, including the report’s authors, argue that the exchange program has turned into little more than a source of cheap labor and that the minimization of au pairs’ role as workers has weakened their access to legal protections, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, wage theft, and even human trafficking.

Sixteen au pairs interviewed for the report told of a multitude of workplace mistreatments, including discrimination and emotional and verbal abuse. Interviewees often reported being coerced to work at unfair pay rates, and many faced retaliation from their host families after lodging a complaint.

These abuses are far from an aberration. In 2015, sponsor agencies received and forwarded to the State Department more than 3,500 complaints, according to an internal analysis obtained by Politico.

The State Department takes “very seriously” any report concerning the safety, health, or welfare of au pairs, a spokesperson told the Prospect. “We expect sponsors to manage their designated programs in a manner detailed in the federal regulations and by sound business and ethical practices,” the spokesperson said.

But relying on sponsor agencies to self-report complaints can be inherently problematic, according to Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that offers legal representation to workers and is a member of International Labor Recruitment Working Group, one of the report’s authors. While au pairs must pay between $500 and $2,500 to participate in the program, host families pay roughly $8,000 per au pair. 

“The financial incentive for the sponsor agencies is to side with the host families,” says DiSalvo. “Siding with au pairs wouldn’t be consistent with the current financial incentives.”

From 2006 to 2014, the State Department did not expel or sanction any sponsor agency, according to the report. What limited sanctions have been applied remain unlikely to reform rule breakers, notwithstanding a 2012 State Department Inspector General report that faulted the J-1 visa program. Sanctioning inadequate sponsors, the report stated, “rarely results in meaningful consequences.”

Towards Justice is currently representing more than 91,000 current and former au pairs in an ongoing class-action lawsuit in Colorado that threatens to upend the entire au pair program. The plaintiffs allege that 15 sponsor agencies charged with handling the au pair program by the State Department have violated federal antitrust laws by colluding to artificially depress au pair earnings.

The lawsuit also accuses the sponsor companies of talking out both sides of their mouths about the mission of the program, describing the program differently depending on its target audience. 

The State Department itself found as much in its 2014 report on the program: “For host families, the program is commonly marketed as an affordable, reliable and flexible way to obtain quality childcare. For au pairs, the program is often advertised as an easy way to live with an American family, learn about American culture, take classes, and earn some money.” 

Several sponsor agencies included in the lawsuit and cited in the report did not respond to the Prospect’s request for comment.

The “Shortchanged” report called for shifting oversight of the au pair program from State to the Labor Department, which the authors believe would more rigorously certify both families and placement, as well as evaluate the families’ compliance with existing labor laws. Short of such an overhaul, the authors also offered various recommendations to the State Department to improve the program, including eliminating recruitment fees, paying au pairs the prevailing minimum wage, and doing away with pay deductions for room and board.

Even though the State Department stipulates that au pairs should be paid the state minimum wage, only a few states have actually enforced the rule. Eight states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts, have passed “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights,” which codify minimum earnings and other protections for au pairs and other domestic workers.

Moving forward, a federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights could be introduced as early as this fall, according to Marzena Zukowska of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, one of the report’s authors.

Zukowska says the bill would put domestic workers on level ground with other classes of workers. Currently, some domestic workers are exempt from overtime pay. It also seeks to amend federal law so that domestic workers, currently not covered under anti-discrimination laws or protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, would qualify for that coverage.

Au pair program placement agencies have displayed staunch opposition to such legislation in the past through lobbying and legal challenges. A move to enact a federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would be certain to trigger both.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

This article has been updated.

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