Camila (a pseudonym) first became interested in becoming an au pair and traveling to the United States when her cousin did it. “She was saying that she was traveling to the U.S. to learn English and be able to have a … cultural exchange,” Camila told Rewire News.
Her cousin only lasted six months, however, saying upon her return that her host family treated her poorly, failing to provide her with enough food and making her work more than 60 hours a week. Still, her cousin said, it was a good opportunity to learn English and meet people, so Camila decided to chance it in the hopes that she would be placed with a better family while learning the language.
At first she was. “I had a great relationship with the first family,” Camila recalled. “They were very helpful, very nice people.” She still sometimes had to pay for her food with her own money, but she was given time off and only had to care for their children for the standard 45 hours a week.
But she wanted to be closer to Boston and have the chance to take courses at Harvard, so she decided to switch families. “The second family was a nightmare,” she said. She was forced to work up to 65 hours a week, and while they at first promised to pay her extra, they later refused. In retaliation for demanding her money she said her host mother disconnected her phone and internet access. “I couldn’t talk to my family, I couldn’t talk to my friends,” she said. “I was scared.”
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After three months she called the local representative of the program she had enrolled through, who came to the house to demand she be paid the extra money. The host family denied she was owed more and told Camila she had to leave that night, putting her belongings in a garbage bag.
She couldn’t go back to her home country—she had already spent money to enter the program and reach the United States. Under the terms of the program, au pairs are responsible for finding a new host family within two weeks if something goes wrong, otherwise they’re returned to their home countries. Camila had two strokes of luck: the local coordinator for her program let her sleep in her apartment for those weeks, and on the very last day she was able to find a new family, one that treated her well and stuck to the terms of the program.
But what Camila experienced with the second family, and what her cousin went through, are not isolated incidents. In a newly released report based on research as well as interviews with hundreds of au pairs between 2016 and 2018, the American University Washington College of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance describe an au pair program that is rife with abuse and operates with little oversight.
In 2017 alone, more than 20,000 people came to work as au pairs in the United States through the J-1 visa program run by the State Department. Of the temporary work visas for domestic workers offered by the federal government, the J-1 au pair program is the only one billed as a cultural exchange. The guidelines state that au pairs aren’t supposed to do general housework or household management, and they are only supposed to provide 10 hours a day or up to 45 hours a week of child care. Meanwhile, they’re supposed to take at least six educational credits a year, paid for by the host family, and are supposed to be provided a private bedroom, meals, and a number of breaks, including one-and-a-half days off a week, a full weekend each month, and two weeks of paid vacation.
Au pairs are sold the idea that the program will allow them to learn the language and gain education. “It sounds beautiful to you when you want to go to a new country,” Camila said. “But that’s not the truth. It’s not an exchange program. It’s a labor program.”
All of the interviewees in the report said that work was the central focus. “Rather than being treated with dignity and respect as valuable participants in a ‘mutually rewarding’ cultural exchange program,” the report notes, “many au pairs are treated as underpaid domestic workers, or worse.” The authors of the report spoke to numerous au pairs who said they were coerced into working longer hours and doing more tasks than they are supposed to do, some of them cleaning and cooking for the entire family.
Since she worked in hospitality in Mexico, Abril Johnson-Nieves was eager to improve her English through the au pair program. But when she got to Boston, she found that caring for triplet toddlers consumed almost all of her time and energy. “My host parents’ expectations were very high,” she said on a call with the media on Monday. They demanded that she teach the children a specific curriculum, as well as take care of other household chores like doing laundry or walking the dog. “I was always asked to do a little bit more or stay a little bit longer,” she said. Yet she wasn’t paid any overtime pay. “I think a lot of American families see us only as a cheap child care option,” she said.
Some host families offer to pay extra for working longer than the maximum 45 hours a week, but even so most didn’t meet overtime requirements. Of those interviewed for the report, 86 percent of the au pairs said they worked overtime, yet 64 percent were never paid extra.
Instead, most au pairs are paid below the minimum wage. Although they are in theory entitled to be paid at least minimum wage in the state they work in, sponsor agencies allow families to pay a stipend of $195.75 a week, which is supposedly minimum wage minus the cost of room and board. That works out to just $4.35 an hour.
Thaty Oliveira wanted to leave her home country of Brazil to study English abroad, so she saved up to enter an au pair program. She found herself caring for a 3-year-old child for that low pay. It was only when she left the program and became a professional nanny that she realized how little it was. Now she owns her own business and makes more than $35 an hour. “As both an au pair and nanny I have watched and fed children, I’ve taught them new words, taught them how to read, done arts and crafts,” she said on the media call. “I support their whole development: physical, cognitive, and social-emotional.”
Through the J-1 program, “au pairs are sold an experience, and families are sold cheap labor,” the report states.
It costs a pretty penny, however, for the privilege of enrolling in the au pair program. Almost half of the interviewed au pairs reported paying recruiters between $1,500 and $2,500 in fees.
“As au pairs we have to pay the program to be able to travel with them,” Camila noted. “We borrow money in our countries to be able to come.”
While some of that goes toward the necessary paperwork, much of it is pocketed by the agencies themselves. For example, most of InterExchange’s funding, which adds to its nearly $26 million in assets, comes from host family fees. Many au pairs, like Camila, end up taking out loans to cover these fees, which can add pressure to remain in negative situations until they can earn enough money to cover the cost.
Au pairs also report widespread mistreatment. Some host families only offered them shared or inadequate places to sleep, while others refused to buy their au pairs fresh food and made them instead eat leftovers. One au pair said her host family made her eat food she was allergic to and made her sleep in a cold basement that served as the children’s and dog’s play area. Au pairs also report experiencing discrimination and emotional and verbal abuse, including racial and sexual harassment. “Abusive circumstances like these caused several of the au pairs to suffer short- and long-term emotional and psychological harm,” the report states.
Yet there is scant oversight and many au pairs feel they have nowhere to turn when they experience abuse. The State Department doesn’t directly oversee recruiters or au pair agencies. Instead, the sponsor agencies themselves are responsible for running and regulating the au pair program, including reporting serious problems to the State Department. But they have a financial interest in keeping host families in the program, as they are the main source of revenue. For example, Cultural Homestay International’s nearly $1.6 million in net earnings mostly comes from host family fees. Cultural Care Au Pair charges families over $9,000, on average, while it charges au pairs $1,500. Even when a host family violates regulations there are no specific consequences nor is it necessarily prevented from hosting another au pair.
Camila saw firsthand the lack of oversight. Her host mother frequently told her that she had had five au pairs before her who all did housework and extra hours without complaining. “How come a program allowed the same bad family to have so many au pairs?” she wondered. The answer, she realized, was that no one was overseeing them. “Who’s watching them, who’s regulating those bad families?” she asked. “The program only cares about getting the money from au pairs … and getting money from families.”
But even when reports are made, the State Department doesn’t have the capacity to respond. Fewer than 40 employees oversee the entire J-1 program, which issued almost 340,000 visas in 2016. As of 2014 it hadn’t expelled or sanctioned an agency in eight years despite receiving “numerous” complaints, the report says.
“The mischaracterization of au pairs as cultural exchange visitors rather than workers results in a vacuum of oversight that allows employers to overwork au pairs, underpay them on a regular basis, and deprive them of the benefits of the program and of their basic human rights,” the report argues.
The authors’ main recommendation is to transfer oversight from the State Department to the Labor Department. The State Department, it states, “has proven itself both ill-equipped to oversee a work program and inadequate at protecting against the abuses that au pairs commonly report.” But in the meantime, it calls for the State Department to “bolster oversight, accountability, transparency, and enforcement.” That would include barring agencies from making au pairs pay recruitment fees, ensuring they be paid the full minimum wage, allowing them to change employers, requiring they be given a contract when recruited, and clearing the way for au pairs to seek justice for any abuses they suffer.
A lawsuit filed in 2015 is also challenging the way au pairs are currently paid, alleging that au pairs are illegally being denied minimum wage and overtime pay. A federal court determined in 2016 that they have viable claims and certified a class of over 91,000 current and former au pairs.
The mistreatment of au pairs is just one egregious example of the broken U.S. child-care system. Families can find themselves shelling out as much as $20,000 a year, spending more on child care than food, rent, or, in many states, tuition for public college. In some places, they can’t find any child care at all. And yet providers are still paid paltry wages, earning less than $11 an hour at the median. Domestic workers are still left out of many labor protections afforded to other kinds of workers.
Au pairs see their fight for fair pay as part of this larger landscape. “Domestic workers and au pairs are included in the group of workers that have been fighting for their rights for decades,” Rocio Avila, state policy director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said on the media call. “They’re part of this fight.”
“Child care is real work, whether you’re called an au pair or a nanny, and it should be paid as such,” Oliveira agreed.