It was 8 years of saving her paychecks before Gabriela was finally able to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with dreams of developing her English skills as a J-1 au pair. While Gabriela felt that she lucked out with a “model family,” through her role as an au pair “greeter” for incoming J-1’s, she was also exposed to many others’ diverse experiences. Ultimately, Gabriela walked away with a sense that without the right safeguards, the J-1 program merely “becomes really cheap labor instead of a cultural exchange.”
First, Gabriela is certain that screening for families should be an essential part of the J-1 recruitment process as well as home visits and check-ups on the au pairs’ living and working conditions throughout their stay. This, coupled with additional cultural competency trainings for host families, should be a strict requirement of the program to improve their treatment of J-1 au pairs. “Both parents and au pairs need to have training on what an au pair does. Families need to have training on how to be an employer. Cultural training to develop the cultural exchange. Why aren’t parents attending four day trainings?”
Additionally, she argues for the establishment of proper work agreements for the au pairs and host families. Many of the J-1 au pairs that Gabriela came to know were often assigned tasks that were not stated on their contract — their fates determined by the whims of their host parents. With greater clarity, Gabriela thinks that au pairs will work better and respected by their host families. On the same point, Gabriela views that minimum wage guarantees in the program are equally necessary to improving J-1 au pairs’ working conditions.
Unfortunately, Gabriela frequently heard stories of host families treating her au pair friends as disposable. Although the J-1 program was supposed to provide support services for au pairs, she found these to be wholly inadequate. “The supervisor was not there for us a lot. She was far. If I needed something, I just couldn’t hop on a bus to her. It wasn’t a super accessible person. I questioned if the LCC was really there for us. She only came once. She didn’t check my living quarters to make sure they were okay. She didn’t go back later to check that I still had everything.” Instead, Gabriela proposes that a “separate agency, perhaps one per state” should be responsible for motinoring the program and be a resource to au pairs, and that know-your-rights trainings be incorporated to the au pairs’ monthy meetings.
“We are supposed to have the minimum wage. If they want to keep the cost low, lower the workload. This isn’t cheap childcare.”