Guestworkers or Culture Ambassadors? The US Au Pair Program
Caught up between the ambiguous migration regulations of family membership and cultural exchange, au pairs find themselves in precarious positions concerning their paid and unpaid labor
I immigrated to the United States in January 2004 to participate in the au pair “cultural exchange” program. I lived in Westchester, NY, working 25-30 hours weekly caring for two children, ages 3 and 5. At that time, the program allowed foreign young adults to live with an American family for one year, providing childcare in exchange for room and board, a $175.65/week stipend, and a total of $500 towards educational credits. I became a “big sister” to two wonderful children. I felt like a family member included in every activity while I improved my English skills, traveled around the US, and made friends from around the world.
Yet, other au pairs I met that year had very different experiences. Besides lacking familial connections with their employers, they discussed being overworked beyond federally regulated hours – up to 10 hours a day and 45 hours weekly – being verbally abused by children and parents, and not being provided adequate lodging and/or food.
As a scholar, I investigate guest work programs – developed to address labor shortages in different economic sectors – such as the au pair program and how its structure and regulations lead to vulnerabilities or protections for their participants.
The au pair and other J-1 Exchange Visitor Programs – sponsored by the Department of State(DoS) – have recently received significant attention in the media and scholarship. Discrimination, sexual harassment, food deprivation, overwork without proper compensation, and human trafficking are among the most severe complaints of J-1 seasonal workers. These challenges are a consequence of the unique categorization of its participants as “cultural exchange,” which the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) suggests “increase[s] mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries using an educational and cultural exchange that assist in the development of peaceful relations.”
The au pair program is advertised to prospective au pairs as a “cultural exchange” opportunity to improve English skills, learn culture, and travel while becoming an “equal” part of an American family. Host families are promised the ideal solution for their childcare problems. These ambiguous narratives veil and devalue labor, facilitating the recruitment of young adults from around the globe while disqualifying them from labor protections. It creates an illusion that they are not workers. With the growing childcare crisis in the US and the minimal oversight by the DoS over implementing its rules and regulations, the au pair program has become a vehicle for the exploitation of immigrant domestic workers. Moreover, a program historically designed to attract Western European au pairs today welcomes more than half its participants – around 21,500 yearly total – from the Global South.
The exclusion of domestic workers – disproportionately immigrants and women of color – from the mainstream labor movement contributes to making their work invisible. Under neoliberal capitalism, if your work is invisible, you are not considered deserving. Because domestic work has long been devalued, those who perform it are perceived as even less deserving than other migrants of rights and protections.
While advocates and policymakers push for the passage of federal and state legislation to protect domestic workers, au pairs remain undefined as workers in all states except Massachusetts. Au pair agencies and host families – au pair employers – are reluctant to categorize au pairs as domestic workers due to the “cultural exchange” narratives.
While I did indeed have a wonderful experience with the au pair program, my research indicates how a positive experience is hardly universal. Massachusetts successfully added au pairs as a protective category under its Bill of Rights of Domestic Workers in late 2019; however, my recent study with current and former Massachusetts au pairs and social media-related groups suggests they have a very limited understanding of these new protections due to lack of information and language barrier. So, I ask, are labor protections enough?
Author’s webpage: Grazielle Valentim
The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre.
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