Young female students who are recruited abroad to be au pairs in the United States are falling victim to human trafficking, wage theft, and abuse according to a new study out of American University.
Au pairs come to the US under an American government educational and cultural exchange visa program, taking up work as housekeepers and nannies for families across the country.
However, the new report found that au pairs are not protected as childcare laborers, working for long hours for little pay and often subject to harassment and physical abuse.
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.
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.
The State Department describes the au pair program as opportunity for foreigners ages 18 to 26 to go to school in American while providing childcare to a host family. But critics say the State Department needs to frame it as a work program instead of a cultural experience and ensure au pairs are protected by labor laws.
Sponsor agencies that place au pairs limit their wages to $4.35 an hour — less than two-thirds of the federal minimum wage. But this payment scheme is now being challenged in a class-action lawsuit in a federal court in Colorado on behalf of 91,000 current and former au pairs.
Despite the evidence, the State Department shot back at the report’s findings.
“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.”