Many students who enter the United States to work as au pairs find themselves becoming housekeepers, cooking and cleaning for families for long hours with no extra pay
The au pair program falls under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, which outsources operations to 16 designated sponsor agencies.
“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,” said Elizabeth Mauldin, of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.
“Lack of enforcement by the State Department allows these abuses to persist,” said Mauldin, whose group contributed to the report, on a conference call with reporters.
The State Department on its website describes the au pair visa program as an opportunity for foreigners ages 18 to 26 to go to school and experience American life, while providing childcare to a host family.
The report called for revamping the au pair system as a work program, not cultural exchange, with stricter oversight, labor law protections and other legal changes.
The State Department defended the program.
“Our discussions with au pairs indicate that they are motivated to come to the United States mainly to practice their English, and to learn about the country through living with a host family for a year, and travel,” said a spokesman.
“We expect sponsors to manage their designated programs in a manner detailed in the federal regulations and by sound business and ethical practices,” he said in an email.
Sponsor agencies limit au pair wages to $4.35 an hour – less than two-thirds of the federal minimum wage – citing costs of room and board, according to the report.
That payment arrangement is being challenged in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 91,000 current and former au pairs filed in U.S. federal court in Colorado.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation sought comment from several sponsor agencies cited in the report, and none immediately responded.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Jared Ferrie
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