Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Exploiting Au Pairs and Domestic Workers

ChuangJanie Chuang (American U.) has just posted on SSRN her article (forthcoming 36 Harv. J. L. & Gender (2013)) The U.S. Au Pair Program: Labor Exploitation and the Myth of Cultural Exchange.  Here's the abstract:

The Article exposes how the legal categorization of au pairs as “cultural exchange participants” is strategically used to sustain – and disguise – a government-created domestic worker program to provide flexible, in-home childcare for upper-middle-class families at below-market prices. The “cultural exchange” subterfuge has created an underclass of migrant domestic workers conceptually and structurally removed from the application of labor standards and the scrutiny of labor institutions. On the one hand, the “cultural exchange” rubric enables the U.S. government to house the program under the Department of State rather than Labor, and to delegate oversight of this government program to private recruitment agencies that have strong financial incentives to overlook and even hide worker exploitation. On the other hand, the “cultural exchange” rhetoric used in the au pair program regulations and practice reifies harmful class, gender, racial biases and tropes that feed society’s stubborn resistance to valuing domestic work as work worthy of labor protection. Together these dynamics render au pairs vulnerable to abuse, and threaten to undermine the tremendous gains otherwise being made on behalf of domestic workers’ rights. The Article concludes with a proposal to reform the au pair program with an eye to promoting decent working conditions for all domestic workers.



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There was not one shred of factual evidence to support any of the absurd assertions in this article. I've known several Au Pairs...young, educated girls (usually white) who came to the U.S. from various different countries, moved in with a nice family in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and cared for the families' children part time, ate dinner with the family, watched television, etc. (as if part of the family). Then, on their free time, these young ladies went out to coffee, dinner, to the beach, shopping, etc. with their Au Pair counterparts, met new friends (including boyfriends), and traveled to other parts of the U.S. And after returning to their home country, the Au Pairs have kept in touch with their U.S. host families, sent cards, gifts, etc. That sounds just terrible!

Posted by: CLS | Oct 23, 2012 7:47:36 AM


Gosh. Anecdote always is sufficient evidence. The article cites the BLS for the 23,000 au pairs in the US, so your positive experience negates everything else?

Posted by: Per Son | Oct 23, 2012 8:10:12 AM

excellent. i published a while ago a related article on the exploitation of live-in nannies
orly lobel, Class and Care: The Roles of Private Intermediaries in the In-home Care Industries in the United States and Israel, 24 HARVARD WOMEN’S LAW JOURNAL 89 (2001).

Posted by: orly lobel | Oct 24, 2012 11:11:58 AM

The cultural exchange over stated claims used in the au pair program rules and practice reifies harmful class, sex, national tendencies and tropes that supply society’s persistent level of resistance to pricing household perform as perform ought to have work protection.

Posted by: ICSE School Mumbai | Oct 26, 2012 1:42:12 AM

Ms. Chuang is guilty of the same thing "Per Son" (above) accuses "CLS" of: Paula is an anecdotal case, too, and much of the background information is missing. Did she inform her Sponsor? Did she complain to the Dept of State? Was she properly oriented? As Ms. Chuang states: "The lack of
ethnographic research and data prevents this Article from offering any
empirical conclusions regarding the extent of au pair exploitation in the
United States, however." In other words, we don't know how many Au Pairs are "exploited." She is relegated to speculating on how the very "structure" of Au Pair causes the alleged mistreatment. Actually, the structure of the U.S. Au Pair program is sound. Very sound. By the logic of her argument, the structure of the restaurant business allows for the poisoning of patrons. But why would they do it? To stay "in business," both, the restaurants and the Au Pair agencies must provide good service to all parties involved. If an Au Pair agency is deficient, negligent or criminal, the DoS has enough structural tools at hand to punish, restrict or even close down a Sponsor. Sponsors can also be sued civilly and there is no dearth of lawyers willing to take such easy cases. There is really no logical need to transfer the program to the DoL.

There are over 300 Au Pair agencies in the UK (with less than a quarter of the U.S. population) - and they are completely unregulated. Compare this to only 15 (!) highly regulated Au Pair agencies in the U.S. The difference is obvious. In the U.S., the Au Pair program is infentesimal in size, compared to the population and it is operated by organizations, trembling with fear about the possible DoS repercusions should they fail to protect their Au Pairs.

Lastly, there is no currently existing U.S. visa (other than the small J-1 Au Pair program, Ms. Chuang is critiquing) under which a nanny, a housekeeper or a domestic from another country can enter the U.S. None! Congress is loath to do anything about it. Consequently, this work is mostly done here by unscreened, untrained, undocumented workers with limited English language skills. Sadly, they have nowhere to go for help when/if exploited. (Let's be honest, very few of our U.S.-born fellow citizens would want to do this hard work.) Dept of State Au Pair participants are in a different class. They are legal, interviewed, vetted, trained and supervised. They must, by law, participate in cultural/educational activities. There is a world of difference between these two groups.

OK, Ms. Chuang, an anecdote for an anecdote: Tiger Woods' ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, was a Swedish Au Pair at his friend's house when they met. I think we can both agree she was far from being exploited.

Readers deserve to know the whole story.

Posted by: Tom Areton | Nov 13, 2012 1:25:51 PM

Thank you all for your responses to the article. As to Mr. Areton's comment, I believe the article actually addresses the points you raise, but I am happy to engage in further discussion offline -- I can be reached at jchuang@wcl.american.edu. I am certainly interested in the perspective you bring as the founder and executive director of an au pair agency.

Posted by: Janie Chuang | Dec 2, 2012 6:03:43 PM

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