While I was away last week, a very disturbing post hit the Washington Post Wonkblog, where the title shares its central claim: “Au pairs provide cheap childcare. Maybe illegally cheap.”
In the post, the author describes a class action lawsuit being brought against US Au Pair Agencies by a Colorado group called Towards Justice, on behalf of 5 au pairs.
The blog post is disturbing because it’s very one-sided. It is rife with presumptions and it offers up “data” that is incorrect and outdated. It presents a very negative picture of the Au Pair program as a front for exploiting young workers. It blames Au Pair Agencies for colluding in price-fixing and neglecting their responsibilities towards Au Pairs. It’s the kind of post that preys on our deep fears and seeks to incite controversy.
We know that there are a few families, overseas recruiting firms, and perhaps even US Agencies, who don’t adhere to the ‘spirit of the Program’ and who take advantage of vulnerable au pairs.
And, we know that most Host Families do their very best to fulfill the full range of obligations & responsibilities to our Au Pairs.
All of us appreciate the dual and sometimes puzzling position of Au Pairs as childcare providers and members of the family. We take our roles as participants in a personalized, in home, cultural exchange seriously. We spend a lot of time managing the complex dynamics of a Host Family-Au Pair relationship, because we believe in that this program gives our families and our world some unique benefits.
So why is the Au Pair program under attack?
In the meta, meta picture — and let me go all PhD on you — my interpretation is that complaints about the Au Pair program trigger two very upsetting narratives (or cultural stories).
The first narrative is of the exploited, powerless, immigrant worker–usually a woman — being taken advantage of. S/he needs to be protected by the US Dept of State and Dept of Labor.
The second narrative is of the messy, seemingly irresolvable problem of US Immigration policies, where we cannot decide how to admit people to the US as temporary workers without making them seem disposable or as if they are taking away “American Jobs”, or both.
There’s a third important narrative at work too– the story of our country’s inability to value paid or unpaid childcare & care work or to provide more support to families who need care. But that narrative (and its sexist implications) is very deep underneath the other dynamics, so it doesn’t come to the surface easily in this particular lawsuit.
When stories trigger fears, both the stories and the fears feel “true”.
When people hear stories about exploited workers, these stories trigger all our fears about these larger dynamics.
The au pairs in this article and suit have been “exploited”, or perhaps taken advantage of, or perhaps lost in the Au Pair Agency’s supervisory systems, or perhaps unwilling to stand up for herself and use the program’s protections adequately.
When people hear stories ‘about’ failures of the Au Pair Agency and US Dept of State systems, these stories trigger our fears about the Au Pair industry.
The Agencies are companies out to make more money at our expense. Government agencies exist to slide issues under the rug and pass the buck to someone else.
When there’s any grain of truth in either these stories or the fears they trigger —
- It’s easier for a reporter to go awry in his/her efforts to write an article that draws appropriate attention to the important issues at hand.
- It’s easier for a social justice advocacy group to hyperbolize and point fingers, and
- It’s easier for a government agency to dissimulate and blur the facts and the lines of responsibility.
With all of this in motion, it’s easy to make the Au Pair Agencies the bad guys.
Six months ago, I might also have pointed my finger at the Au Pair Agencies, too.
After all, they are the ones that ‘execute’ the State Department’s guidelines, import and manage the au pairs, and screen and manage the Host Families. And, they are the ones that make a living doing all of this.
But, full disclosure here, since last Fall I’ve gotten to know more people “in the industry” — at US Agencies, at overseas Agencies/partners, and at the IAPA (International Au Pair Association). I’ve done this by speaking about Au Pair Mom and the host parenting experience at one national conference and one international conference.
And –more PhD stuff here– I’ve done this from the perspective of a business professor. I’ve spent time learning about the business model(s) of the Agencies and of the industry, I’ve thought about competition, technology and change in the industry, and I’ve gotten a closer picture of the ‘business’ of Au Pairing.
As a result of this exposure to these other parts of the the Au Pairing ecosystem, I don’t think the people at US Au Pair Agencies are the bad guys. Not at all.
To be sure, the Au Pair Program isn’t perfect:
- There are Au Pair Agencies and personnel that don’t do the careful job they should as they recruit Host Families and oversee the families’ treatment of their Au Pairs. These individuals need better management, and the Agencies themselves need to upgrade their systems and expectations to make this oversight more effective.
- There are host families that abuse the Au Pair program and fail to follow the “spirit of the program”. I want these families screened out and permanently excluded from the Program. I believe that most Agencies want this too.
- There are Au Pairs who game the system and Au Pairs who complain instead of learning to assert themselves. There are also Au Pairs who *are* powerless (or certainly feel that way) in the face of their Host Parents’ authority. These Au Pairs and all Au Pairs need support and guidance and protection. We Host Parents, as well as Agencies and the State Department, need to give this support to them.
- There is a complex network of financial arrangements among Au Pairs, Agencies, and recruiting agencies outside the USA. These financial complications often mess with an Au Pair’s sense of her options, her independence and her responsibility. Because these arrangements differ by country and by Agency, and because these costs/payments fall outside our own Host Family arrangements, we Host Parents fail to see how they might influence our Au Pair’s behavior.More transparency from Agencies (e.g., information about costs, how costs are averaged within their programs so that each Host Family pays the same amount no matter how expensive that Au Pair’s overseas plane ticket was, recaps of LCC/AR cluster reports, etc.) could help us understand how things work. This transparency could help Agencies build trust with us, and help us feel like we’re in it together.
- The US State Department mumbles and fails to provide leadership to the industry. Even if their hands are tied by political contradictions and conflict, they could still do more to bring transparency and guidance to the US Au Pair Program as well as to the Au Pair ‘ecosystem’ worldwide.
Ultimately, if we Host Families want caring childcare offered by a young person, who comes into our home and our family life, who comes from a different part of the world with different cultural experiences but bonds with us over our shared concern from raising children who are more open to the rest of the world, we need to defend the Au Pair program.
As an industry, the Au Pair Agencies together can improve what they do and how they communicate their value to families, au pairs, and our world. But a lawsuit against them won’t make that happen.
I’ll put the 1,200 words I wrote critiquing the Washington Post blog into another post…. but here, I want to pose the question:
What can we Host Parents do, to support our Au Pairs, our Agencies and the Au Pair Program?