Au Pair Exploitation

Back in the springtime, in lovely Marin county, California, I was romantically involved with a young woman to whom I’ll refer as Novia, who had come from abroad to work with an au pair exchange program.

Childcare, with which I gratefully have no personal experience, is expensive as fuck in this country. Probably that’s the case in many countries, but in this particular exploitative capitalist dystopia, where every person is supposed to spend every hour of their waking life working, regardless of if doing so provides them a living wage; and also procreating so we’ll have new little worker bees to take our places when we’re worn out and dead; a country in which the government is doing little or nothing to help because demands packaged with anti-socialist rhetoric are effectively propagated by the wealthiest, most callous and most disconnected of the corporate-capitalist ruling class and thus prevent any measures to better society for people at large; it can be particularly burdensome.

So for those who can’t afford childcare or, let’s be real, don’t want to pay and will do whatever they can for a deal, there are au pair exchange programs. These programs have (according to an episode of PBS Newshour, which continues to be one of the sources saving me the trouble of doing journalistic work of my own) been growing in number and popularity in recent years.

The way these au pair exchange programs work:

1 They recruit people in foreign countries, mostly young women, naturally.

2 These women pay to be part of the program, and the people hiring them in the U.S. pay to use the service, as well.

3 The young women are flown in to work as au pairs.

4 The people hiring them are supposed to provide the imported au pair with food, living space, and a wage.

But here’s the thing: the “host” family can deduct the cost of room and board from their au pair’s pay. They can end up spending less for a foreign full-time live-in nanny than they would for an American one working part-time. The fuckers are making out like bandits. See because the way this thing works is, it’s treated as a “cultural exchange” program, not a business arrangement. They’re bypassing American labor laws and exploiting foreign labor.

I forget the exact numbers I’d worked out in my talks with her on this subject, but unless my memory and math are total shit, Novia was working fifty or more hours a week and earning for that maybe a hundred dollars. And no, they did not cover every meal she ate, and this is in Marin County, the fifth wealthiest area in the country (world?). So she got for her excessive workload only a little spending money, and nothing much in the way of savings.

I say thee, bullshit.

Her hosts also had her working what would, in any properly regulated job in this country, amount to overtime. She was allowed only one day off a week, and what day that happened to be was not of her choosing, and liable to change at the whims of her “hosts.” There were times when she asked if she could have Saturday off instead of Sunday, and was told, essentially threatened, that she could work through the whole weekend if she didn’t like the arrangement. They also had her doing work that hadn’t anything to do with childcare, like driving to the airport in San Francisco to pick up a friend of theirs.

On that note, her status, and the legality of her driving at all in this state and country, let alone doing so solo, was dubious. She did, after several months here, get a California license, but until then, these people had her driving around, running errands for them, with a license from her home country and a folded piece of paper that was some kind of waiver or permission slip, but which, I am sure, did not grant authorization to drive many miles on city and highway roads without a licensed driver present.

Throughout her time with these people and their mistreatment of her, they were highly manipulative of Novia. They’d tell her that they loved her. Meanwhile, they were badly taking advantage of her, exploiting her, and also, long before her contract with them was set to expire, looking for a new au pair to replace her ahead of schedule.

I started to hate these people.

When she told me about the abuse and exploitation she endured, though she did not describe it in those terms, I was angry. My impulse was to write an article, a local op-ed maybe, outing them and bringing down upon their heads the great equalizing force of communal shaming. Through a bit of detective work (internet stalking), I found their names and address. However, Novia, when I suggested my vengeance plan to her, adamantly told me not to do it. Even when I promised to do it after she was done working for them, and to avoid personal details that could chance to blow back on her, she had me promise not to. Her take was along the lines of, “what’s done is done” or “water under the bridge,” I guess. She also was very fond of the kids she cared for; she didn’t want any social harm done to the parents to affect the kids. She wanted to let go all negativity, focus on the positive, and move on from the bullshit. She’s a beautiful person and a total sweetheart. I still want to mete out some kind of revenge on these assholes in her name, but won’t; out of respect for her, the promise I made, and, you know, not overstepping my bounds and doing impetuous, malicious shit in her name.

While I won’t do anything to this specific couple, they are representative of a problem that needs to be addressed. I am torn on what exactly should be done. If the programs were changed, better regulated, so that the au pairs working through them are fairly paid and treated better, that could well mean that the parents who use the programs will stop. Because, on the really real, we know that the “cultural exchange” aspect is not the real draw here. These people would hire fluent/native english speakers, with valid US state drivers’ licenses, all things being equal. The primary appeal of these programs is that they are less expensive and they allow the “hosts” a dynamic in which their power over the au pairs is great and unchecked. Still, it would be preferable to improve management and enforcement of equity in these programs, at the risk of them declining in popularity amongst stingy rich American parents. There are positive aspects to the programs; after all, without them, I would not have met Novia.

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