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Abolish the Au Pair Program

The American au pair program is closer to indentured servitude than cultural exchange.

The Au Pair Families of Massachusetts website leads with a lovely family photo: mom, dad, grandpa, two young children, and their au pair, all smiling together in front of the Washington Monument. Another shows a mother, father, au pair, and adorable baby sporting matching red berets. Others feature families and their au pairs laughing with a lobster on the Cape, grinning around a nautical-themed birthday cake, candlepin bowling, riding a carousel.

All are meant to demonstrate that au pairs are cherished members of the family participating in a mutually beneficial cultural exchange, not domestic servants desperately in need of a raise.

A federal judge saw things differently, ruling in December that Massachusetts au pairs are covered by state labor laws, and as such are entitled to the state’s minimum wage (now $12.75 an hour) and other basic labor rights in line with the 2015 Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Starting January 1, pay for au pairs increased from $195 a week to $528 a week, which includes a $77 deduction for room and board.

Until this latest ruling, Massachusetts host families, many of whom reside in wealthy towns like Brookline and Newton, have enjoyed what is, for all intents and purposes, a cut-rate live-in servant. Whether a family had one child or five, a newborn or school-age children, au pairs were legally mandated to work up to ten hours a day and forty-five hours a week for $4.75 an hour.

Criticism of the au pair program has persisted since its founding in 1986. The General Accounting Office argued in 1990 that the sponsoring agency — the now defunct United States Information Agency (a Cold War–era soft power incubator) — was not “adequate to ensure integrity of the program,” while others recommended that the program be discontinued after its initial two-year pilot run because it didn’t meet the requirements of a cultural exchange.

The issuance of J-1 visas, rather than H visas designated for temporary workers, was conditional upon au pairs doing substantively more than babysitting, laundry, and scrubbing toilets. Au pairs were expected to learn about American culture, study English, take college courses, and make friends.

But from the start, au pairs spent nearly all their time doing chores. Decades later, with nearly 100,000 au pairs having participated in the program, little has changed. As investigations from Politico and the International Labor Recruitment Working Group demonstrate, au pairs are an exploited and vulnerable population. Many au pairs say they are expected to be on call 24-7, with little time for classes or studying. They are often saddled with household chores (on top of childcare) that run the gamut from cooking and cleaning to gardening and moving furniture.

Thousands of au pairs have reported sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and isolation. But instead of assistance, many have seen their contracts terminated, have been shuffled to other host families, or, fearing disqualification from access to a US visa in the future, have been pressured into silence by their agency handler.

Both the State Department and the au pair agencies, who earn huge fees facilitating the program, are well aware of these problems. Yet agencies have worked tirelessly to maintain the program as is, lobbying Congress to keep it in place despite trenchant criticisms from elected officials such as Bernie Sanders, workers’ rights groups, and au pairs themselves.

The tide is turning, however. In Denver, lawyers at Towards Justice, a nonprofit law firm fighting for economic justice, helped au pairs from Colombia, Australia, Germany, South Africa, and Mexico win a $65.5 million class action settlement. David Seligman, director of Towards Justice, said of the settlement: “This . . . hard-fought victory of our clients who fought for years on behalf of about 100,000 fellow au pairs, will be perhaps the largest settlement ever on behalf of minimum wage workers and will finally give au pairs the opportunity to seek higher wages and better working conditions.”

The Massachusetts decision could have an equally broad impact. The December ruling was the culmination of a case brought by Cultural Care, an au pair agency, against Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey. Cultural Care sued Healey (who is responsible for administering the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in Massachusetts) in 2016, hoping to prevent Massachusetts host families from having to abide by the DWBR’s mandate that families pay the state minimum wage, plus overtime and other benefits.

While the case was still in court, Massachusetts families were able to continue paying their au pairs the federal minimum wage ($7.25) minus a deduction for room and board. Now, as of January 1, au pairs have gotten a big raise, and host families are furious. They have started a petition to convince Elizabeth Warren to overturn the wage increase.

Families insist that the au pair program is not a domestic servant relationship because they buy their au pairs cell phones and take them to restaurants and are required to give them $500 during their one-year stay to spend on schooling (less than the cost of 1 credit at Boston University).

Host families say that now they’ll be forced to send their au pairs home because they can’t afford to pay them the state minimum wage. Massachusetts legislators with an eye on their base have stepped in to support host families, proposing legislation to push back implementation of the wage increase until summer and to increase the amount families can deduct in room and board to mitigate the wage increase.

It’s true that childcare in Massachusetts is exorbitantly expensive. Bright Horizons, a popular daycare chain in the Boston area, charges $2–3,000 a month per child for full-time care. But the au pair system is not a solution.

For decades, au pair host families have reaped the gains of an exploitative program, secure in the notion that they are providing a public service as cultural ambassadors for America. These families are ambassadors — ambassadors for the American elite.

If host families can’t pay these young women a decent wage and provide them with the respect and opportunity they deserve, the au pair program should be abolished.