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“They think we are slaves,” one Brazilian domestic worker told Politico Magazine for a piece on the terrible conditions some au pairs face when participating in the U.S. government’s program founded in 1986 to promote cultural exchange. Journalist Zack Kopplin describes the role of an au pair as a job in which “in return for light housework and child care, [au pairs] join an American family for a year, learning the language and culture.”

Many of the thousands who come to the U.S. as part of the State Department program are welcomed and treated well, according to Kopplin. But when the rights of au pairs are abused, neither the government nor the placement agencies, which profit immensely from the program, seem to investigate or protect the foreign workers.

From Politico Magazine:

… according to a dozen current and former au pairs as well as former au pair company employees, ordeals like Juliana’s aren’t unusual, either. They relay horror stories of au pairs who are overworked, humiliated, refused meals, threatened with arrest and deportation—even victims of theft. Worst of all, they say, complaining about exploitative, unsafe working conditions rarely makes any difference. Sometimes, reporting abuse makes the situation worse. … in fact, the vast majority of complaints coming from au pairs appears to disappear into a bureaucratic black hole, where they aren’t thoroughly investigated or even publicly reported. A State Department spokesman told Politico Magazine it received 62 complaints from au pairs and families in 2015. But according to a State Department internal analysis of the program obtained by Politico Magazine, that’s inaccurate: Au pair agencies received and reported to the government more than 3,500 incidents that year.

All this casts a shadow over a government program bringing thousands of domestic workers, mostly young women, to the United States each year. It was designed to showcase American values and generate international goodwill. But how can it achieve that when worker protections are minimal and oversight is scarce, and as a result many of these women claim to suffer the worst that America has to offer? …

In 2013, the Senate debated a bill that would have prohibited companies from charging au pairs recruitment fees, which can range from $500 to $3,000 and can leave au pairs in debt. (Au pair companies also charge families roughly $8,000 per au pair.) “This program is a scam,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, during Senate debate over the au pair reform bill. “It is not a cultural-exchange program.” But the agencies lobbied vigorously against the measure; Congress voted it down.

Read more here.

— Posted by Natasha Hakimi Zapata

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