Foreign students recruited as au pairs face abuse in U.S.: report

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Young women recruited to the United States to care for children fall victim to wage theft, abuse and even human trafficking, according to a report published on Monday that called for legal changes to help protect au pairs.

International au pairs - most of them young women - work under a U.S. government educational and cultural exchange visa program that fails to safeguard them as childcare laborers, according to the report.

More than 20,000 students entered the United States last year to work as au pairs while attending school, said the report by workers’ rights groups and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University Washington College of Law.

Many find themselves becoming housekeepers, cooking and cleaning for families for long hours with no extra pay, while some report harassment and physical abuse, according to the report.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline said it received reports of more than two dozen potential victims of trafficking who were on au pair visas from 2014 through 2017.

Most were trafficked as domestic workers but some were forced into commercial sex, it said.

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.

The report’s research was based on news articles, government websites, interviews with au pairs and anonymous au pair reviews posted on a website for migrant workers.