Au Pair Program Biased to W. Europeans

IT is said that the biggest crimes in Washington are those that are legal, and when it comes to skirting the law, nobody does it better than the people who write the laws themselves.

For example, it's illegal for persons to be discriminated against just because they look different, but the United States government, which writes and enforces those regulations, gives preference to blue-eyed blonds from Western Europe for thousands of jobs each year, while excluding those from other parts of the world. The way Congress wrote the law, makes it perfectly legal; but it turns out that the US itself isn't an equal opportunity employer.

Thousands of young nannies, called au pairs, come to America each year through eight government-designated organizations, the biggest located in New England. Recruits are confined to 13 Western European countries. Full-time household helpers stay under the guise of participating in a US government educational and cultural exchange program. The present law was locked in by Congress in 1990.

Last year 7,287 Western European au pairs came to the US. The host family pays a $3,500 fee to the nanny agency, which doesn't include the nanny's wages. That is a $25.5 million dollar business, which is growing every year.

The largest of the eight nanny agencies sanctioned by the government is "Au Pair in America" of Greenwich, Conn., which brings in "carefully selected" young people from Western Europe to care for children up to 45 hours a week. It spearheaded a ferocious lobbying campaign that defeated efforts to cut back the work week so young Euorpeans would have time to attend school here, as they are supposed to.

The third-largest government-approved nanny agency, "EF Au Pair" of Cambridge, Mass., advertises that the program is "a legal alternative to traditional American child care. Prospective clients are told that "a well educated, English speaking European ... (will be) living in your home as a family member."

According to a congressional source who refused to be identified, "If the program were opened up to other parts of the world its whole complexion would be different. You want someone who is bright and curious about the world, to get higher quality child care. It's a big business and the whole market would change."

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the Western European au pair program is not within its jurisdiction. It gets involved only when "employers" discriminate. It doesn't do "exchange programs." A bill quietly died in the US Senate that would have transferred the enterprise from the US Information Agency, where it does not belong, to the Justice Department, where it would be more carefully scrutinized.

Domestic nanny agencies, which employ many blacks and Hispanics, say au pairs have had a devastating effect on their business, leaving many American nannies unemployed. Au pairs are paid $100 a week by host families, who also do not have to pay Social Security and unemployment taxes. American nannies, whose taxes must be paid, make an average of $250 per week.

Congress has forced the US Information Agency to be the Mary Poppins of domestic child care.

This subverts USIA's mandate to tell America's story abroad through the Voice of America and Worldnet television, and should not continue.

Nanny care, a brazenly disguised work program, belongs in the Labor Department. For the au pair program to have any merit at all as an educational and cultural exchange tool, Congress should amend the present law. It should limit nanny care to a maximum of 30 hours per week and make the program available to all young people, not just to those who come from Western Europe. Au pair agencies, who blame Congress and the USIA for present restrictions, lobbied Congress hard not to change anything.

They should bear in mind that they are au pair agencies, and au pair is French for "in equality."

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