Gender & Sexuality

Host of Problems

What happens when au pairs encounter long hours, low pay, and abusive host families.
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ANNA VIGNET/REVEAL

Every year, thousands of young people travel to the United States from other countries and work as au pairs. The term au pair is French for “a relationship of equals.”

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These 18-to-26-year-olds live with a host family for one to two years and provide up to 45 hours of child care a week in exchange for room, board and an annual stipend of about $10,000.

It seems like a win-win situation. The au pairs — usually women — get to travel and experience new cultures in safe settings. The families get live-in help with child care for far less than a nanny would cost.

The US State Department oversees the au pair program, and sets guidelines for its operation. But that federal agency leaves almost everything — from how much host families pay to how disputes are resolved — to au pair agencies. These are mostly for-profit organizations that pay the State Department for the privilege of running the program.

  • They come here looking for opportunities, but can end up being caught in a system where they have little control.

 On this episode, Noy Thrupkaew of The Investigative Fund and Reveal's Fernanda Camarena examine what happens when au pairs in this country encounter long hours, low pay, cultural misunderstandings, occasionally abusive host families and the sense that they have no one to turn to when troubles crop up.

Key Findings

  • Mistreatment included hours extending beyond the weekly cap, duties far past the children, and little or no cultural exchange.

  • The State Department provides minimal oversight, entrusting it to au pair agencies. Their loyalty is to the host families.

  • Au pairs who want to leave their hosts risk debt and loss of visas.

This story was reported in partnership with Reveal and the Washington Post Magazine.

About the reporter

Noy Thrupkaew

Noy Thrupkaew

Noy Thrupkaew is a Los Angeles-based journalist who covers labor, culture and politics.