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Visa Program Leaves Cultural Exchange Workers Vulnerable to Exploitation

Participants in the U.S. Summer Work Travel program have been victims of wage theft, harassment and even human trafficking.




McDonald's is among the top companies employing foreign workers in the Summer Work Travel program. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of State’s J-1 Exchange Visitor Program visa was created to foster “mutual understanding” between Americans and residents of other countries. With an average age of 21 years, 280,000 workers come to the United States on J-1 visas every year to experience American culture and boost their English skills, usually while working service industry jobs. However, a new study from the International Labor Recruitment Working Group  (ILRWG) says that the J-1 program’s largest category—the Summer Work Travel program—has become less about cultural exchange, and more about providing cheap labor for American companies, such as Disney, McDonald’s and Six Flags. 

According to the study, the Summer Work Travel program is rife with abuses and has little oversight. 

Workers from countries like China, Bulgaria and Ireland – the top three countries of origin for J-1 participants – pay hefty sums for the chance to visit and work in the United States. During a conference call with members of the press, Rachel Micah-Jones, who works for a migrant worker advocacy organization called Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, said, “Recruitment or sponsor agencies charge them thousands of dollars for the promise of a cultural exchange.” But when J-1 visitors arrive in the U.S., their experiences are often very different from what was promised. “Many are working multiple jobs and living in overcrowded housing to make ends meet. Others, who paid exorbitant amounts of program fees, are carrying large debts after taking out loans to cover those fees,” said Micah-Jones. Some J-1 workers even struggle to buy food. 

“Growing up in the Dominican Republic, I always dreamed of travelling and working in the United States,” said Oliver Benzon Martinez, who says he paid $3,000 to join the program. Martinez was told he would work as a cook, but when he arrived in Ocean City, Maryland, he learned that the restaurant was still unfinished, and was put to work doing construction. When Martinez finally received a paycheck, it was for a fraction of the hours he worked. “[My boss] just said I could take or leave the money,” he said. 


When it comes to standing up against unfair treatment, J-1 workers face barriers. According to a 2014 Southern Poverty Law Center report, compiled from hundreds of interviews with the exchange workers, “J-1 workers cannot access federally funded legal services to help them address workplace violations. And few private lawyers are willing to take a complicated case that involves internationally recruited workers.” In some cases, the Summer Work Travel program can even open the door to human trafficking. The ILRWG’s report states that between 2015 and 2017, 67 J-1 holders identified themselves as human trafficking victims to the anti-trafficking organization, Polaris.

However, a State Department official defended the integrity of the Summer Work Travel program, which he said is monitored by the agency for adherence to federal regulations. “The Department of State has zero tolerance for any abuse and misconduct,” said the official, speaking on background. “We take very serious[ly] any report made to us concerning the health, safety, or welfare of exchange participants.”

While ILRWG’s report indicates that the Summer Work Travel program poses problems for workers, it also claims that the program offers benefits and loopholes for employers. “The J-1 has virtually no meaningful regulations that protect workers,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. That is partially due to the fact that the J-1 program is not overseen by the Labor Department, but instead by the State Department, an agency with “no mandate or expertise in labor standards,” said Costa. 

Unlike other guest worker programs, such as H-2A, J-1 doesn’t require that employers give priority to U.S. workers before turning to migrant workers. Since employers are not required to pay certain taxes, including Medicare and Social Security, for J-1 workers, there are financial incentives to hiring Summer Work Travel visa workers over domestic job seekers. Although the State Department says that the Summer Work Travel program is “first and foremost an educational and cultural exchange program,” the benefits it provides to employers could offer another explanation for its growing popularity. While there were 20,728 workers under the program in 1996, there were 104,512 in 2018. “I’m speaking out because I don’t want others to fall into this trap,” said Martinez.

Copyright Capital & Main

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