The U.S. Au Pair Program: Labor Exploitation and the Myth of Cultural Exchange
Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, Vol. 36, 2013, Forthcoming
76 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2012 Last revised: 24 Aug 2013
Date Written: August 15, 2012
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.
Keywords: au pair, J-1 Visa, domestic work, cultural exchange, labor exploitation, migrant domestic workers
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