07/10/2012

Rule changes in student guestworker program an improvement

The Southern Poverty Law Center commended the U.S. State Department today for its changes to rules regulating the department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel Program as a step in the right direction.

At the same time, the SPLC urged stronger enforcement measures to better implement the new rules and more protections for U.S. workers. It also urged adding housekeeping to the list of prohibited job placements for student guestworkers.

The federal government created the Summer Work Travel Program in 1961 to give international college students a chance to experience American culture, but the program has significantly strayed from its core principle of fostering cultural understanding. Instead of a cultural exchange program, it has become a money-making scheme for corporations. This shift comes at the expense of students’ health and safety and U.S. workers’ jobs. The program brings in more than 100,000 students each year.

“The rule changes signal that the federal government recognizes the need to better protect these students, but the changes need stronger enforcement measures,” said Dan Werner, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Students employed in hotel housekeeping are especially at risk of exploitation. Unscrupulous sponsors and employers see these students as a source of cheap, vulnerable and exploitable labor.”

The SPLC represents guestworkers employed in the hospitality industry throughout the Southeast, including student guestworkers who have described abuses they have suffered while participating in the program. Students have suffered dangerous housing conditions, job insecurity, wage violations and workplace abuse.

In 2011, for instance, foreign students were employed at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Miss., as housekeepers. Their pay was based on the number of rooms they cleaned each day. In order to make enough money to survive, they were forced to work through back pain, skin rashes and physical exhaustion – all of which resulted from the housekeeping jobs. Because his sponsor charged nearly double the actual rental value for an apartment, one student made only $189 for 67 hours of work – less than $3 an hour.

These and other students participating in the program generally pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to designated sponsors who place them in jobs with host employers. Sponsors are typically private companies that profit from this arrangement. Even under the new proposed regulations, the sponsors remain almost exclusively responsible for policing themselves and ensuring the employer complies with the program’s rules.

Employers and sponsors frequently exploit loose regulations to employ J-1 students in low-wage jobs instead of relying on U.S. workers or, in the absence of U.S. workers, other guestworker programs, such as the H-2B or H-2A programs that are intended only to fill seasonal or temporary labor shortages.

The lack of regulation in the J-1 program also often leads to students forfeiting their investments in what they assumed would be a valuable cultural exchange experience. In some cases, students are forced to choose between remaining in an abusive environment in the United States or returning home without any of the benefits they were promised.

While the rule changes announced in May would prohibit student guestworkers from laboring in certain jobs and strengthens requirements of J-1 sponsors to ensure against sponsor and employer abuse, the rule changes still lack necessary enforcement measures. The SPLC urges the department to include the following additional measures to achieve its stated goals of protecting the welfare of the students and reinforcing the program’s cultural exchange component:

  • Housekeeping should be on the list of banned occupations. Housekeeping provides few opportunities for on-the-job cultural exchange, as workers are isolated from hotel guests and usually only work alongside other J-1 guestworkers. The work is extremely difficult and physically demanding, leaving J-1s little energy to engage in cultural exchange activities after work. Housekeepers are also prone to severe forms of labor exploitation, such as workplace sexual abuse and human trafficking.

  • Enforcement measures for the new regulations must be strengthened. The program has an inherently problematic structure and the new regulations lack realistic and effective enforcement measures. Enforcement of employer obligations remains solely with the sponsor – a private entity. Without effective enforcement measures, companies will continue to use the program as a low-wage, unskilled guestworker program despite the department’s efforts to re-establish it as a cultural exchange program.

  • The regulations need stronger protections to protect U.S. workers. The J-1 program is one of the largest guestworker programs in the United States but it has virtually no effective protections for U.S. workers. The State Department should enlist the expertise of the U.S. Department of Labor to certify that employers seeking to hire J-1 guestworkers are paying the prevailing wage and are not displacing U.S. workers.