Professor Janie Chuang - "Exploiting Au Pairs: Labor, Human Rights, and the Myth of Cultural Exchange"

Faculty Scholarship Highlight, April 2013


Professor Janie Chuang - "Exploiting Au Pairs: Labor, Human Rights, and the Myth of Cultural Exchange"

 

For AUWCL Professor Janie Chuang, the subject of her forthcoming article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, the U.S. au pair program, makes perfect sense in hindsight. After all, au pairs fall right at the intersection of Chuang's myriad teaching and research interests—international law, human trafficking, human rights, and migration. And as she documents in "The U.S. Au Pair Program: Labor Exploitation and the Myth of Cultural Exchange," the legal categorization of au pairs as "cultural exchange participants" under U.S. law has strategically been used to sustain and disguise a government-created domestic worker program to provide flexible, in-home childcare for upper-middle class families at below-market prices. Indeed, such a "cultural exchange" subterfuge has created an underclass of migrant domestic workers conceptually and structurally removed from the application of labor standards and the scrutiny of labor institutions.

On the one hand, the "cultural exchange" rubric enables the U.S. government to house the program under the Department of State rather than the Department of Labor, and to simultaneously delegate oversight of this government program to private recruitment agencies that have strong financial incentives to overlook and even hide worker exploitation. On the other hand, the "cultural exchange" rhetoric used in the au pair program's regulations and in practice reifies harmful class, gender, and racial biases and tropes that feed society's stubborn resistance to valuing "domestic" work as work worthy of labor protection. Together, these dynamics render au pairs vulnerable to abuse and threaten to undermine the tremendous gains otherwise being made on behalf of domestic workers' rights. More than just documenting the problem, Chuang's article concludes with a proposal to reform the au pair program with an eye toward promoting decent working conditions for all domestic workers.