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New report reveals employers, other details about troubled J-1 summer work travel program

The students from the Dominican Republic were told that they could experience American culture while working at resorts and ice cream shops.

Instead, they were shuttled around to various hotels to perform grueling housekeeping and laundry jobs with little opportunity for cultural exchange. When they were not working, they lived in cramped and substandard housing, each of them charged $90 a week in rent, in addition to the fees they had paid to their sponsor. Eight of them were placed in a small, bedbug-infested apartment with one bathroom.

The case – highlighted in a report that was released today – demonstrates the exploitation of guest workers in the J-1 Summer Work Travel (SWT) visa program, a program intended to provide cultural exchange that has morphed into a source of cheap and exploitable labor.

In addition to the risk of human trafficking, college students who use the program often encounter harsh work and living conditions, wage theft, physical abuse, excessive fees and little, if any, chance for the cultural exchange promised by the program. Instead, the visa program has been used by companies drawn to the prospect of workers, who, under the visa program, do not require health benefits or payroll taxes paid by their employer, according to the report, “Shining A Light on Summer Work: A First Look at the Employers Using the J-1 Summer Work Travel Visa.”

The program, created in 1961 and overseen by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), offers few protections for these workers, according to the report co-authored by the SPLC and released by the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG), a coalition of organizations committed to ending the systemic abuses of workers recruited to the U.S.

“For years, workers have publicly shared their stories of disillusionment, recruitment fraud, and workplace abuse,” said Meredith Stewart, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “This report has now confirmed through data that those stories are not just anomalies, but evidence of a broken program that is often nothing more than a smoke screen for many U.S. employers to gain access to cheap and exploitable labor.

“The State Department and members of Congress can no longer ignore the serious failures of the J-1 program,” she said. “We call on the State Department and members of Congress to take action immediately to reform the program.”

The report offers a first-time look at the industries and 16,000 companies using the program, including large corporations such as McDonald’s, Disney and Food Lion. The companies and data revealed in the report are the result of a tedious 18-month Freedom of Information Act request, which also required more than 500 hours of work to code the data by industry and to manually input the data into a spreadsheet.

“The time-consuming process required to obtain the data for this report clearly illustrates the need for more transparency in the J-1 program,” the report states.

Comprehensive reform is needed to protect people such as Oliver Benzon. Benzon, a former J-1 SWT worker in Ocean City, Maryland, left his home country of the Dominican Republic to work as a cook, but was ordered to do heavy construction work upon arrival in the U.S.

“The sponsor agency at home promised me a cultural exchange – I would improve my English, meet people and immerse in the American culture,” he said. “For many of us students, the experience feels more like exploitation.”

A glaring program flaw noted by the report is the use of private organizations as recruiters and de facto managers. The new report also builds on the findings of a 2014 SPLC report, “Culture Shock: The Exploitation of J-1 Cultural Exchange Workers,” which notes that, “J-1 workers cannot access federally funded legal services to help them address workplace violations,” leaving them with few places to turn for help.

J-1 workers also find themselves stuck in these jobs due to debt they incurred by paying recruitment fees and travel expenses.

“No one should have to pay to work,” said Rachel Micah-Jones, chair of the ILRWG, and founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM). “Guest workers across visa categories and industries oftentimes must take out loans to cover recruitment fees and travel expenses. When workers arrive to the U.S. indebted, they are less likely to report labor violations for fear of losing their jobs and status. Recruitment fees should be banned across guest worker programs.”

The new report recommends the following policies and reforms:

  • Require that the program fulfill its original mission of cultural exchange.
  • Guarantee that J-1 workers have robust labor and employment protections, and that the program does not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.
  • Regulate the recruitment of J-1 workers to protect against fraud, discrimination and human trafficking.
  • Provide J-1 workers effective mechanisms for legal recourse when their rights are violated.
  • Make information about the J-1 program publicly available and easily accessible to stakeholders and the public.

In addition to the SPLC, the Economic Policy Institute, the AFL-CIO, Justice in Motion and Centro de los Derechos del Migrante co-authored the report.

Photo by Gerry Melendez