“Family or Boss?” Cultural Exchange Narratives and New Law Implementation in the US Au Pair Program
Even with new labor protections in place, Massachusetts au pairs still find themselves vulnerable due to the lack of agency supervision and the program’s emphasis on family membership and “cultural exchange.”
Sitting in a café, I asked a follow-up question to Tereza, a 26-year-old au pair from Brazil, about her employer’s reactions to the recent legal categorization of au pairs as domestic workers in Massachusetts, or the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Tereza told me:
“Oh, she wasn’t happy. Obviously, right? She argued that we weren’t workers. We were exchange students. Yes, she said this would only harm the au pairs because there would be fewer families [in the program]. But at any point, she said […] that her decision [to cut my hours] had to do with money. In fact, she didn’t say anything; she just stopped putting me to work. And that was it. Do you understand? But she wasn’t happy, no! So much so that they [host family] left the program.”
Tereza lived with her family for five months before the law was introduced, and, as a flexible worker, she cared for a toddler 45 hours weekly, including weekends and holidays, for $195.75 plus room and board. Tereza’s experiences with her host family are shaped by how cultural and familial narratives are disseminated by the au pair organization.
My research aims to understand how: 1) the formal structure of the au pair institution, especially the agency staff, and 2) the family membership and “cultural exchange” discourses impact au pairs’ vulnerabilities when new law is implemented, given the privacy of domestic employment. It draws on interviews with twenty-four au pairs in Massachusetts who experienced first-hand the application of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in late 2019 or arrived after the law took effect.
Derived from French, “au pair” means “on par with” or equal to, indicating that the in-home childcare employer-employee relationship should mirror a family membership. Formally instituted in the US during the early 1990s, the program has provided low-cost and flexible alternatives for Americans seeking childcare. The effects of the scarcity of US government incentives for affordable childcare and the growing number of dual breadwinner households have led several families to rely on the au pair program for labor rather than cultural exchange.
Around 22,000 young foreign adults, primarily women, are placed with a host family annually through the au pair program. Their application process starts in their home country, where local tourism agencies sell the “cultural exchange” and familial experience to prospective au pairs while blurring the program’s work requirements. After matching with host families, au pairs travel to the US and meet with agency staff, Local Community Coordinators (LCCs), who create a cultural and educational experience for au pairs and, most importantly, mediate the relationship between au pairs and host families. These staff are responsible for disseminating necessary information regarding programs’ rules and regulations and resolving issues, including rematching them into a new family when a first placement fails.
When Massachusetts recognized au pairs under their Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in December 2019, the effects remapped these dynamics. New York Times reporter Kate Taylor explains that “several parents [host families] said the ruling fundamentally misconstrued the nature of the au pair program, which was designed as a cultural exchange, allowing young people to pursue their education while experiencing everyday life in an American family.” These arguments reflect the ambiguous position of the au pair characterized as a family member, cultural exchange student, and worker.
Alexandre (28) was one of the few au pairs I interviewed who benefited from the recent legislation, which protected him from being overworked and underpaid. He feared a rematch when the sudden changes occurred and offered his host family a salary deal – $200 for 35-40 hours. “My host mom is a lawyer, so she didn’t want to do anything illegal. So, she said, “Oh, no, I’d rather pay you and stuff, and we don’t need you so many hours.” Employers that chose to remain in the program cut down on au pairs’ weekly schedules. He started working fewer hours and continued earning $200. He claimed to have a close relationship with his employer and felt like a real family member.
However, when domestic workers are referred to as part of the family, the boundaries between paid and unpaid work are blurred, and workers may feel obligated to provide unpaid favors usually expected of typical family members. Cecilia (25), when explaining the character of her relationship with the host family, asserted, “It was family.” The employers guaranteed they would not rematch, and familial ties emphasized by the program were used to negotiate Cecilia’s new salary. The employers offered Cecilia $300 for 36 hours of weekly childcare, compared with Massachusetts’s minimum wage of $12.75 in 2020, stating they would not deduct the $77 for room and board required by the new law. Due to the lack of clear information about her rights from agency staff and fear of the rumors of families abandoning the program, some au pairs felt pressured to accept employers’ terms, especially if they had strong ties with the family.
Natalia (28) described how changes in the law revealed the limits of support from au pair agencies and how she had to rely on peers to learn about new regulations. In her words, the LCC “did not say shit.” All the information she garnered was from au pair groups on Facebook and au pair friends. Like others, Natalia reported trying to reach out to their LCC without success to understand how changes would affect au pairs. They explained their LCCs were unavailable to help or provided vague information.
My initial findings suggest that familial membership and “cultural exchange” narratives open au pairs to vulnerabilities and even abuse from their employers. I also find that some employers (mis)interpret laws and that many au pairs are (mis)informed about their rights. Agencies do not consistently inform au pairs about new protections, which leaves them at the mercy of employers’ interpretation and application of the law. These dynamics have made it difficult for au pairs to claim their rights under the new law.
Article by Grazielle Valentim
Bio: Grazielle Valentim is a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Her research interests focus on immigration and labor rights, family, gender, and care work. Her work explores how the State Department, sponsored au pair agencies, and states like Massachusetts apply laws to au pairs, given that the program is recognized as “cultural exchange” rather than migrant labor. She explores the contrasting experiences of women and men au pairs as well as the experiences of host parents – employers – accounting for different family formations through the lens of gender, sexuality, class, work, and family.
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