More than 1,500 au pairs came to Massachusetts in 2017. Typically young women, au pairs come to the US on J-1 visas as part of a cultural exchange visitor program under the US Department of State. They provide flexible, in-home childcare for up to 45 hours per week and receive weekly stipends of $195.75, equal to $4.35 per hour. Au pair sponsor agencies, like Cambridge-based Cultural Care Au Pair, advertise the program as cheap and convenient childcare to host families; you can find posts in any online parent forum that recommend au pairs as the “cheapest childcare” that is available 24-7.
To au pairs, agencies sell the program as a cultural exchange through which they will have the opportunity to study. Au pairs pay agencies thousands of dollars in program-associated fees to come to the US for this. But once here, they often find that they are underpaid domestic workers.
I know, because I was an au pair. Since my childhood in Brazil, I wanted to study abroad and learn English. I remember the day my best friend came home with a flyer from an au pair agency; it felt like a dream coming true. So I saved up money and eventually came to Boston to be an au pair to a 3-year-old child. After my experience, I remained in childcare.
I confess that I did not know that being a nanny was a career choice, but I am now a professional career nanny. As a nanny, I came to realize that I was doing the same work that I had been doing as an au pair. It is hard work and some of the most important in society. As both an au pair and as a nanny, it has been my responsibility to foster children’s whole development—cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional. I am a private in-home educator. As an au pair, I received subminimum wages for this work. As a nanny, I now earn over $30 per hour. While au pair agencies advertise other benefits to au pairs, like educational support, these do not offset such poor pay. Despite my low pay, I had to spend my own money to cover the cost of my English studies, because the standard $500 education credit that I received was insufficient.
I am not alone. Indeed I was lucky compared to so many au pairs. A new report by the Matahari Women Workers’ Center and other organizations, titled “Shortchanged: The Big Businesses Behind the Low Wage J-1 Au Pair Program,” documents systematic exploitation of au pairs in Massachusetts and beyond. Au pairs report working long hours for $4.35 per hour while experiencing things including sexual harassment, insufficient food, and emotional abuse, among other issues. The Department of State leaves most oversight to profit-driven agencies, and while there are both good and bad host families, agencies are financially incentivized to retain even exploitative host families because they pay thousands of dollars to agencies and are often repeat customers.
While this report and the experiences of au pairs highlight the need for greater oversight and protection, au pairs are still under attack. The major agency Cultural Care is suing the Massachusetts Attorney General to remove au pairs from the 2014 Massachusetts Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which gives several protections. As an industry leader, I work with nanny communities across the country, and in Boston I’m a member-leader with the Matahari Women Workers’ Center. We have organized to keep au pairs protected, as we know that an attack on au pairs here is an attack on domestic workers everywhere.
Claims that au pairs are not workers despite 45 hours of weekly childcare rest on the same assumptions that have long deprived domestic workers of fair pay and protections: that care work is not real work and that immigrants who comprise most of this workforce are undeserving. We will continue to fight for au pairs so that they are paid at least minimum wage and overtime, remain protected by the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, and benefit from proper oversight of the program by a neutral party. Only then will all domestic workers be truly protected.