Any search for “au pairs” online produces a mix of companies advertising to middle and upper-class parents in the U.S. or ones recruiting overseas young female recent graduates, promising a win-win match. For example one website reassures that:
“Au pair” means “on par” or equal. Au pairs and Educare companions are international visitors who travel to the United States on a J-1 Visitor Exchange Visa to acquire a better understanding and appreciation of American life while living with an American family and caring for their young children…Au pairs and companions become full-fledged family members, sharing a cultural exchange experience that often leads to a lasting relationship with the host family.
Many of these companies, promise childcare that is highly skilled (young educated women) but that is, cheap, disposable, bonded labor, paying significantly under most state laws for minimum wage: for example thereby exploiting the social problem of inaccessible childcare in society and enabling the flow of a feminized skilled migrant labor force through the U.S. visa system for the professional classes.
Further down the google search starts the sexy stories of middle-class families and au pairs, for example, how one parent came out of the closet through her au pair and silly fillms like, Au Pair: Adventures in Paradise
Then, of course, there is the research, much of it focused on the EU, for example, Rosie Cox’s provacative study, The Servant Problem: Domestic Employment in a Global Economy and her highly recommended forthcoming edited book: Au Pairs’ Lives in Global Contexts: Sisters or Servants. There are also U.S. perspectives on au pairs, many of these on the Eastern seaboard for example the recent study of Cameron Macdonald’s called: Shadow Mothers. And although caregivers and cleaners have been focused on together in the 1990s, for example the classic study in California by Pierette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Domestica and Rhacel Parrenas’ Servants of Globalization also focuses on the LA area (as well as Rome), my research focuses on the Pacific Northwest specifically Washington state which is known as a “gateway” for high-skilled immigrants and yet with little information specifically on women immigrants’ experiences. While these studies focus on the exploitative labor of these women, spotlighting globalization pressures and the ways this group become disposable in the new economy (see for example, Grace Chang’s famous, Disposable Domestics) this study moves beyond this perspective to examine the women’s capabilities, educational trajectories, career strategies and social mobilities, within a framework of skilled female migration theory (see, Parvati Raghuram and Eleanor Kofman’s work for example).
This blog is about the problematic ways higher education, migration systems, and global labor markets intertwine in immigrant women’s career trajectories. Using a case study that began in 2014 of ten au pairs, I illustrate their struggles as they attempted to gain opportunities but lost ground. Valerie, a new au pair to Seattle, Skypes her parents daily in Mexico City. She speaks softly because her room is next to the children’s. Their advice helps her adapt to her difficult situation—they say, “Valerie, It’s a job. It’s not like you’re going to have fun. You have to deal with them. Think like a job.”
“Them” refers to her host-parents. Valerie initially believed that her doctor employers were her parents-away-from-home —terminology that her recruiters used to reinforce au pairs’ cultural exchange, their status as students and ‘big sisters’ to other people’s children (Pai, 2004; Cox, 2006; forthcoming). Although Valerie ate dinner with this family she questioned their working relationship when they left her dirty dishes and ignored her aching back. Valerie is not an, ‘employee’ under her J-1 visa making her work-based problems invisible. What I mean by “skilled” immigrants are those having tertiary education and professional occupations like Valerie. Yet highly skilled women immigrant’s stories have yet to be told.
All participants were either from Mexico or South American countries and they either had university degrees or were working towards these in their home countries. Moreover, their disciplines were in non-feminized areas (industrial design, graphic design, law, journalism medicine, science, and engineering). They believed they needed leverage to compete in the “global auction” of professional jobs (Stromquist and Monkman 2000); learning English could tip the scales to being hired by multinational corporations as one participant articulated. Feminist transnational migration theorists (Kofman et al, 2000 Pratt, 2004, Raghuram, 2004; Mahler & Pessar, 2006) see female skilled migration as an invisible stream of labor from south to north whereupon women become deskilled in doing dirty, dangerous, domestic labor in the “global care chain” (Hochschild, 2000). These jobs prevent their advancement (author, 2013). Gender selectivity is the tendency for women over men to receive higher education and migrate to make returns on it (Feliciano, 2008; Jubany, 2009; Kanaiaupuni, 2000). However they often get stuck in dead end jobs in social reproductive fields. All of the au pairs represented skilled migration chains that begin with higher education degrees that raise expectations and create debt, involve personal network influences, and recruiters who promise opportunities.
Three patterns have been found so far: 1) au pair work, viewed initially as a career launching pad was often experienced as a dead end that led to participants’ deskilling. The J-1 visa is limited to six non-credit courses worth $500, leaving au pairs to reapply for international F-1 student visas within bonded labor positions; their employers determining their opportunity structures 2) Women studying in non-feminized subject specialties had limited career opportunities and support in their home countries and were pulled into feminized areas upon becoming au pairs, for example childcare and social work 3) Technology played an important role in the migration of these women and their experiences in the U.S. including the ways they communicated with their biological and host families in addition to the ways it was used for information-seeking and strategizing.
Why is this research important? Highly educated women often become deskilled when they migrate as illustrated in a 2012 report of the International Organization for Migation, called, Crushed Hopes: Underemployment and Deskilling Among Skilled Migrant Women. The au pair participants were paid only $197.00 for 45 hours of work which is less than half of the minimum wage in Washington state, leaving them without support to advance. The commodification of their lives is unmistakeable. The au pairs exercised their agency by becoming strategic with their visas. However this did not transform their situations. Larger structural reforms are needed at the international level to turnaround the dead ends that skilled immigrant women experience upon migrating.