Immigration Law

Shortchanged: The Big Business Behind the Low Wage J-1 Au Pair Program

ILRWG, Aug. 2018 - "Informed by au pairs’ firsthand accounts, this report explores structural deficiencies in the J-1 au pair program that contribute to labor rights abuses. Au pairs report wage theft, coercion, sexual harassment, retaliation, and misrepresentation, among other abuses. Among the range of temporary work visas available to domestic workers, the J-1 au pair program is the only program masquerading as a cultural exchange. Indeed, au pairs report that work, rather than cultural exchange, is the central component of their experience. Au pairs report that their sponsor agencies communicate competing narratives about the program to them and to their host family employers: while sponsor agencies and their foreign affiliates promise au pairs a cultural exchange program at the time of recruitment, sponsor agencies advertise the program to host families as an affordable and flexible childcare program, electing not to emphasize the educational and cultural exchange components. Sponsor agencies’ profit motives prevent au pairs from accessing support when they face abuses. When au pair and host family interests come into conflict, au pairs report that sponsor agencies side with families, putting au pairs at risk of coercion, labor exploitation, and human trafficking. This report also highlights the U.S. State Department’s failure to exercise meaningful oversight over sponsor agencies and over the business relationships between host family employers and sponsor agencies, which in turn conceals labor rights violations. The State Department’s continued mischaracterization of the program as a cultural exchange rather than a work program enables sponsors and host families to abuse au pairs, while lack of enforcement by the State Department allows these abuses to persist. We recommend transferring oversight of the au pair program to the Department of Labor to strengthen protections of au pairs’ rights. Until the transfer occurs, we recommend that the State Department bolster oversight, accountability, transparency, and enforcement. To counter the economic coercion that au pairs report, we recommend that the State Department ban sponsor agencies from charging au pairs recruitment fees and that au pairs be paid a fair hourly wage without deductions for room and board. We recommend that the State Department consult with the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security to ensure au pairs do not face barriers to justice while in the United States or after returning to their countries of origin. We recommend that the State Department facilitate au pairs’ ability to change employers. Finally, we recommend that au pairs receive a contract at the time of recruitment and know-your-rights training upon arrival in the United States."