It's bad enough when foreign workers are exploited in bunches, as they are through farmworker visas and (at a higher wage level) the H-1B program, but think of the exploitation possibilities when a one young person from another country is working as the lone servant in an American household.
She has little contact outside the family that employs her and generally knows little about our (not very strong) worker protection laws, but does know that if she upsets the family, she will be put on the first plane back to the homeland.
Welcome to the State Department's au pair program!
Should the department — which has virtually no state-side staff outside of Washington — be running a foreign worker program that is full of nearly invisible exploitation? Should it grace such a program with an elegant French name? Whether it should or not, it does; all under the rubric of the Department's J-1 exchange visitor program.
Recently the au pair program, and its very real problems, emerged from the shadows as a handful of young women — supported by a powerful law firm — hauled the managing middlemen of the program into federal court.
A judge has recently ruled — and this gets complicated — that the insurance company hired by the middlemen agencies (such as Expert Group International, Inc.) must defend some of the au pair brokers in court, but does not have to do so in another instance. (The PACER file is 1:15-cv-02499-RPM.) Without getting into the nuances of the sidebar struggles between these two U.S.-based interests, let's get back to the young woman who started it all.
Johana Paola Beltran, who is by now a late 20s national of Colombia, signed up for the au pair program with an agency in Bogota back in 2011 after paying a $2,500 fee of dubious legality. According to the complaint, "InterExchange or its agents told Ms. Beltran that in order to become an au pair she would have to take classes in English, take a course to get her driver's license, get first aid training, and take a swimming class."
The last requirement, though not a point of contention is a good, small idea that I had not encountered before. Anyone taking care of American kids should know how to swim; many migrants do not.
Beltran did as she was told. She was chosen to be a participant in the program, flown to New York, took another week's worth of classes there, and then flew to Colorado, where she joined the household of Thomas and Pamela Noonan and their children.
She was immediately thrust into a situation where she worked longer hours than the 45 hours a week in the agreement, lived in a room in the basement of the house, was barred from eating with the family (although she cooked their meals), and took care of both the children and a flock of eight chickens.
For this she was paid exactly $195.75 a week, a figure set by the broker agency, far below both the federal and the state minimum wage.
Eventually she joined with other similarly treated au pairs in a class action against the State Department's chosen exchange program brokers, which was filed in 2014. The lead attorney in the case works with an outfit called Toward Justice-Denver, and most of the lawyers on the workers' side of the case are affiliated with the big New York firm of Boies, Schiller, and Flexner. (David Boies is a well known litigator, whose clients have included Al Gore in the presidential recount, the NFL in some of its lawsuits, and, years ago, CBS in a dispute with General Westmoreland. Class action lawyers are paid, in cases like this, only if they win, and those costs are borne by the defendants, such as the au pair brokerage firms.)
The case is ongoing (six years after Ms. Beltran become involved with the program) and is in the U.S. district court in Denver, under the PACER heading of 1:14-cv-03074-CMA-KMT.)