After paying a staggering $1,500 to a recruitment agency in her home country of Thailand, “Wen” was excited to come to the United States to be an au pair.

Like all au pairs, she would live with a host family and provide childcare. This guest worker program is supposed to provide a cultural immersion experience during which young foreigners improve their English, take classes, and learn about the United States.

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By law, au pairs must live with host families for whom they provide a maximum of 45 hours per week of child care and are paid exactly $195.75 per week — well below minimum wage — along with room and board.

When Wen (not her real name) arrived, her host family in Pittsburgh demanded that she work 16 hours per day, sometimes 24. The family also dictated that, in addition to providing care for two young kids, she would clean their house. And do their laundry. And handle the grocery shopping and cooking. They even told her to serve their houseguests.

Wen wasn’t allowed to eat the family’s food in the refrigerator or use the washing machine. Nor was she allowed to make private phone calls.

After several months of this abuse, Wen contacted the agency for help. She also reached out to the recruiter back in Thailand, and even contacted the State Department, the agency responsible for the au pair program. After a month of desperate phone calls, she finally reached the agency supervisor, who told Wen she would either have to stay with the abusive family, who would not be penalized, or return to Thailand.

How can that happen here?

What Wen experienced isn’t uncommon under our nation’s temporary work visa programs. In agriculture, manufacturing, and even the retail service industry, employers are eagerly replacing American workers with low-paid and easily exploited foreign workers.

Au pairs come to the United States with a J-1 visa. The State Department manages the J-1 program because it’s officially more about a cultural exchange than cheap labor. Cases like Wen’s illustrate the pitfalls of this bureaucratic arrangement.

The temporary worker programs suppress wages for everyone. And they perpetuate unemployment when companies skirt the rules on advertising available jobs.

Worse, because they’re often poorly regulated, temporary work visa programs can trigger human trafficking. Wen’s story points to the need for safeguards when things go wrong.

Advocates seeking to end human trafficking are pushing common-sense safeguards in the immigration bill, like restrictions on fees charged to workers and transparency in the recruiting process.

Such measures were originally included in the first Senate version of the immigration law. However, after employment agencies argued that the “cultural exchange” aspect set the au pair experience apart, a last-minute amendment removed the entire J-1 program from the protections and put it in a separate, weaker category.

The crux of the argument for this carve-out is false. Most au pairs don’t endure abuse, but too many of the young people working here on J-1 visas, like Wen, don’t seem to be getting the cultural experience they were promised.

As far back as 1990, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study concluded that the program’s cultural components are lacking in practice and that the Labor Department should assist in overseeing the J-1 visa program.

It came as no surprise to me that the strongest opposition to including J-1 visas in the immigration bill came from the au pair agency lobby. I’ve been working with exploited and trafficked household workers for years, and I’m used to hearing people say that nannies, maids, and caregivers “aren’t like other workers.”

But they are. They are actually doing the skilled caregiving work that makes parents’ work outside the home possible. And they, as well as other temporary workers in the J-1 visa program, deserve equal protection.They toil in places like Hershey factories in Pennsylvania or behind counters at McDonald’s, where they work alongside U.S. workers doing the same jobs.

Removing the entire J-1 visa program from the protections in the immigration bill will only perpetuate an underclass of workers in the United States who remain at risk of severe exploitation.

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Tiffany Williams

Tiffany Williams, a social worker, is the director of Break The Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s also a consultant for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
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