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SPLC complaint: Cultural exchange students in South Carolina exploited for cheap labor

Foreign college students who paid thousands of dollars to spend their summer living and working in the United States as part of a federal cultural exchange program were exploited by a labor broker who used the program as a source of cheap labor for businesses in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, according to a federal complaint filed by the SPLC.

Update: Amended complaint filed September 13, 2016

The complaint describes how 11 students from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic were promised opportunities to experience American culture as they worked jobs at resorts and ice cream shops in the beach town as part of the J-1 Summer Work Travel program. Instead, they were placed with a labor broker that shopped them around to various hotels to perform grueling housekeeping and laundry jobs that offered little opportunity for cultural exchange.

The complaint was filed this week with the Department of State, the agency that oversees the program.

“These students came here to experience America,” said Meredith Stewart, SPLC staff attorney. “Unfortunately, when they return to their home countries they will only have stories about our nation’s appetite for cheap, vulnerable labor and the people willing to hijack a federal program to get it.”

Congress created the J-1 program more than 50 years ago to foster good will between the people of the United States and other countries. 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.

Employers do not have to pay payroll taxes for J-1 workers. The savings an employer can realize – around 8 percent on its total payroll expenses – have led staffing agencies to promote the program as an inexpensive labor force, according to the SPLC report Culture Shock: The Exploitation of J-1 Cultural Exchange Workers.

The complaint seeks to bar the labor broker, Grandeur Management, from participating in the program. It also seeks to reimburse the students’ expenses to participate in the program.

The students’ sponsors – American Work Adventures and International Exchange of North America – promised work with cultural exchange opportunities on and off the job. The sponsors, who are also named in the complaint, violated program regulations by failing to vet Grandeur Management and placing the students with the labor broker.

This arrangement essentially allowed the sponsors to make money from the students by charging them fees to participate in the program before passing the responsibility for the students onto the labor broker, which shopped the students around to hotels for sporadic work.

“I borrowed a lot of money to spend the summer experiencing America,” said Nicolas Florentino. “Instead, I am doing exhausting work as a housekeeper and I’m not getting any cultural exchange. I would not have come here if I knew this would be my experience. I was deceived and used.”

When the students weren’t at work, they lived in cramped and substandard housing arranged by the labor broker where they were each charged $90 per week in rent. Eight workers were placed in a small, bed bug-infested apartment with one bathroom.

In previous years, J-1 visa holders and a local law enforcement official have complained to the State Department about this housing, but the federal agency still allows students to be housed there.

When a student complained about the work and housing conditions, an official with Grandeur Management said “troublemakers” would be kicked out of the J-1 program. State Department regulations bar retaliation against J-1 workers over complaints.