Culture Shock

They come to experience all America has to offer.

They hope to pay their way by working a summer job as they experience a new culture and learn English. They work in our hotels, restaurants, fast-food chains and amusement parks. They work for companies with names synonymous with the United States: McDonald’s, Disney, Hilton and more.

They’re J-1 guest workers.

Many of them are college students participating in the J-1 visa Summer Work Travel Program. Others come here to train in their career field as part of the J-1 Trainee and Intern Program. Together, these two J-1 visa categories account for more than 130,000 foreign workers arriving in the U.S. each year to work full-time as part of the wider J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program.

Congress created the program more than 50 years ago “to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange.” [1]

Foreign youths pay American job placement agencies designated by the Department of State — called “sponsors” — to be placed with U.S. employers in jobs that offer cultural exchange opportunities and, for trainees and interns, professional job training.

But the workers in the Summer Work Travel and the Intern and Trainee programs often discover that the promise of “cultural exchange” is an empty one.

Photo: David Bundy

Employers are using the program to fill labor needs, transforming a program designed to foster international goodwill into a source of cheap, exploitable labor. For the employers, the program offers a way to cut labor costs. Employers do not have to pay payroll taxes for J-1 workers.[2]

The savings an employer can realize by not paying an employee’s Medicare, Social Security or federal unemployment tax — around 8 percent on its total payroll expenses — have led staffing agencies to promote the program as an inexpensive labor force.[3]

The sponsors and their overseas partners — the groups that recruit and screen participants — also are reaping a windfall by charging J-1 workers hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees to participate in the program. These fees are completely unregulated, and students and their families often fall into debt to pay them and other travel expenses. This recruitment debt leaves students vulnerable to exploitation. Faced with pressure to pay off loans, students and interns may opt to endure workplace abuse until they can return home.

J-1 workers often discover the cultural experience they invested in does not exist. They are frequently placed in low-paying jobs with little or no opportunity for cultural exchange. Students told the SPLC that their experience is dominated by work without the opportunity to enjoy American culture. This is true even after the State Department, which oversees the program, began requiring sponsors in 2012 to place J-1 students in jobs that ensure they have cultural exchange opportunities on and off the job. From students’ experiences, it’s clear this cultural exchange requirement too often exists only on paper.

When these workers aren’t on the job, they are often forced to live in overcrowded housing with other J-1 workers. They are frequently paid less than the minimum wage after their employer makes excessive deductions for housing, uniforms, transportation and other expenses. Some J-1 workers discover they must work a second job just to survive.

But this is more than a story of debt and disappointment. It has put some young students at risk of human trafficking and other nefarious activity.[4]

The State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report noted that vulnerabilities in the J-1 program can “potentially facilitate human trafficking.”[5]

When these workers complain or try to stand up for their rights, they find few places to turn. The State Department claims it has no authority to sanction employers and typically does little to help workers with employment-related issues. 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.

J-1 workers are promised the opportunity to experience American culture. Too often, they are exploited for cheap labor. Photo: David Bundy

U.S. workers also suffer from the program’s weak regulation. Employers aren’t required to recruit U.S. workers before hiring J-1 workers. There are no meaningful regulations that prevent employers from paying J-1 workers a wage that undercuts U.S. worker wages. This lack of protection is particularly harmful to young U.S. workers who are facing high youth unemployment rates.[6]

It should be no surprise that efforts to reform this program have been met with stiff opposition by those profiting from it. When the U.S. Senate passed anti-trafficking provisions to regulate overseas recruiters in 2013 — including a ban on recruitment fees charged to workers seeking temporary work visas — J-1 sponsors and employers persuaded lawmakers to carve out an exception for the J-1 visa.[7]

This report is based on hundreds of interviews with J-1 Summer Work Travel participants and interns and trainees working across the South, primarily in the hospitality industry. These interviews revealed that regardless of the worker’s country of origin or whether they participated in the Summer Work Travel Program or the Trainee and Intern Program, the experience is the same. The undeniable conclusion is that these J-1 programs, an initiative once envisioned as a tool of diplomacy, has become little more than a source of cheap labor for employers.

Based on the SPLC’s investigation, it is clear, in fact, that the program suffers from the same flaws as other guest worker programs. The SPLC has represented thousands of guest workers in lawsuits to protect them from wage theft, discrimination, illegal recruitment practices and other abuses. As evidenced by these lawsuits, temporary foreign workers are extremely vulnerable to recruitment and workplace abuse.[8]

The J-1 program, however, is much larger than the nation’s other major low-wage guest worker program — the H-2 temporary worker program.[9]

But the J-1 program lacks many of that program’s worker protections.[10]

Perhaps more troubling is that the U.S. government and its sponsors globally advertise the J-1 program as a cultural exchange — not a temporary work program — even though that is clearly what the Summer Work Travel and the Trainee and Intern categories have become. 

Without true reform, our nation will continue to send disillusioned young people home every year with stories about U.S. employers and their insatiable appetite for cheap, exploitable labor.

“I would never have come had I known the job was going to be so bad,” said Joom, a Thai student who spent almost all of her “cultural exchange” scrambling to clean 20 hotel rooms a day in Louisiana. “Housekeeping is hard work — my body hurt. This was not the cultural experience that we paid for.”

Our nation can no longer continue to break its promise with foreign workers such as Joom. The J-1 program must return to its original mission of cultural exchange. It also must have mechanisms in place to protect young U.S. workers in the job market. Recommendations for reform are offered at the end of this report.

[122 U.S.C. § 2451. 

[2] 26 U.S.C. §§ 3121(b)(19), 3306(c)(19).

[3] See, e.g., Seasonal Staffing Solutions, www.seasonalstaff.org/Tax-Benefits-For-Employers-Hiring-J1-Foreign-Staff.html (“American Employers can legally save 7.79% off their total payroll expenses simply by promoting cultural exchange and hiring J1 students.”) (last visited Nov. 7, 2013).

[4] See, e.g., United States v. Trucchio, et al., No 11-cr-00614-VM (S.D. N.Y. filed Nov. 17, 2011) (J-1 SWT students forced to work as exotic dancers in New York); USA v. Berman, et al., 3:07-cr-00114-LC-2 (N.D. Fla. filed Sept. 18, 2007) (J-1 SWT students used in labor trafficking scheme in the Florida panhandle).

[5] U.S. Dep’t of State, 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, 385-86, www.state.gov/documents/organization/210742.pdf.

[6] 77 Fed. Reg. 27,593, 27,601 (May 11, 2012) (discussing the SWT program in light of high youth unemployment rates).

[7] Fredreka Schouten, Immigration Amendment Contains Deals Sought by Industry, USA Today, June 26, 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/06/26/immigration-bill-carveouts-counselors-au-pairs-alaska-seafood/2460785/.

[8] See generally Mary Bauer, Close to Slavery, Southern Poverty Law Center (2d ed. 2013), www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/publication/SPLC-Close-to-Slavery-2013.pdf.

[9] In 2012, there were 50,009 H-2B visas issued and 65,345 H-2A visas issued for a total of 115,354. Dep’t of State, Nonimmigrant Visas Issued by Classification, 2008-2012, available at www.travel.state.gov/pdf/FY12AnnualReport-TableXVIB.pdf; see also Daniel Costa, Guestworker Diplomacy, Economic Policy Institute, 9 (2011), www.epi.org/files/2011/BriefingPaper317.pdf [hereinafter Guestworker Diplomacy] (citing statistics that indicate that the “J- visa Exchange Visitor Program, in terms of annual flow, is the largest category of nonimmigrant visas . . . .”).

[10] See, e.g., Patricia Medige & Catherine Griebel Bowman, U.S. Anti-Trafficking Policy and the J-1 Visa Program: The State Department’s Challenge from Within, 7 Intercultural Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 103, 125 (comparing the SWT and H-2B guest worker programs).