Foreign Student Workers Allege Exploitation
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Note: this article originally appeared in Spanish in La Opinión. It was translated for New America Media by Caitlin Fuller.
They come to the United States looking for friends, a good work experience, culture, and travel. What they find is exhausting workdays, overcrowding, and debt. The program, regulated by the State Department, is called Summer Work and Travel—a promise which, in many cases, goes unfulfilled.
Yana, 19, describes herself as “well-built,” woman. She certainly is, after spending three months lifting 50-pound boxes in the Hershey’s chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, where she was assigned through the Summer Work and Travel program.
By now, all she wants is for September to arrive, so that she can return to her native Ukraine. “I came here to work, to get to know the U.S., to travel. But all I’ve done is lift boxes during night shifts.”
“We are on our feet all the time. When we complain, they tell us they’ll send us back and we’ll never be able to return to the United States,” she said.
Summer Work and Travel is run by the State Department, and was created under the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961. To participate, young people must be enrolled in an institution of higher education in their home countries and have completed at least one semester of study.
For participating students, the State Department grants J-1 temporary work visas, which allow for four months’ stay in the U.S. In turn, private companies can sponsor a foreign student, and handle the application, employment, transport and housing of the worker. For these services, young people pay $3,000-6,000, depending on their destination.
Just last year, the State Department issued 120,000 J-1 visas for Summer Work and Travel participants. Many of these participants have praised the program for providing a satisfactory experience in the U.S.
But it’s a different story for more than 200 youth who, along with Yana, protested in front of Hershey’s last week, calling for dignity and justice. The protest suggests that the work program has significant problems. It would seem that the workers’ experiences vary widely depending on their private sponsors, and they’re not all good ones.
“They really have exploited us. We knew that we were going to work, but I came with the expectation of earning a little money. I put myself in debt to come here. But they charged such high prices for housing and transportation, that you end up with $150 a week, rather than the $500 they promised us,” said Tony, 27, from Ghana. Tony lives in a single room with five other young people, for which they each pay $395 per month.
Tony and Yana’s sponsor is the Council for Education and Travel, USA (CETUSA). Rick Anaya, executive director, said, “We have met with the students to confront the problems they reported. If the young people are not having a significant cultural experience, we will try to work with them to see what we can do, in the limited time they have left [in the U.S.].”
Daniel Castellanos, spokesman for the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, who also attended the protest, said that the problems with CETUSA are just the tip of the iceberg, and that there have been complaints about the Summer Work and Study program for at least the last 10 years.
“They are the first to speak up publicly, but this has been going on for a long time,” he said.
A 2006 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office criticized the lack of supervision of the program. The report said that there had been very few visits to sponsors or work sites to ensure that they are meeting the agreed-upon requirements or to investigate complaints.
A Matter of Life and Death
Fair pay is not the only area in which the program is under criticism. Safety is another. In 2009, two Chilean youth who were in the United States under the Summer Work and Travel Program were shot and killed in Pensacola, Florida. Their sponsors were Alliance Abroad, Center for Cultural Interchange (CCI), and Cultural Homestays International.
On the night of February 26, Roy Baker, a U.S. citizen who lived in the same apartment building as the students, opened fire, killing two people and wounding three.
The medical insurance provided by their sponsors provided limited coverage, and the wounded youth, one wounded in the head, one in the arm, and one in the hand, had to turn to the aid of a worker’s compensation fund established by the U.S. government, which later ran out of money.
“It was important case. It took a huge network of support to negotiate what followed the incident. It overwhelmed the system in many ways,” said Adjunct Consul of Chile in Miami, Victor Abujatum.
“I think the Pensacola case should make parents reflect on whether it makes sense to send their children on adventures that could have tragic consequences. It revealed the precariousness of the program. You also have to think about regulation and auditing to avoid students ending up working like undocumented people or performing dangerous work,” he said.
In 2009 alone, 4,700 Chileans were granted visas through Summer Work and Travel.
In January 2011, the Chilean consulate in Miami registered a complaint by Alan Ordenes, 22, who was hosted by the company Geovisions.
The company had brought 18 students from Chile and Peru to Miami to work as bicycle taxi drivers. From this group, two returned home, some went to San Diego and others stayed in Miami. A typical situation, as the sponsor company often changes students’ jobs and destination once they arrive in the United States.
Ordenes testified that he lived he initially lived in a small apartment with nine other people. After he complained, he was moved to another apartment with three other students. “There wasn’t any furniture. We slept on inflatable mattresses. We didn’t have a microwave or beds. The refrigerator didn’t work and one of the pipes was broken,” he said.
Other Latin American consulates have also had complaints, including the Argentine embassy in Chicago. When asked by La Opinión, consulates for countries such as El Salvador and Mexico had not received complaints.
Labor Unions such as AFL-CIO have spoken up for better protection for students who come with programs like Summer Work & Travel. “There are good things about the J-1 visa. We believe that there is value in having cultural exchange,” said Ana Avendaño, Assistant to the President and Director of Immigration and Community Action of the AFL-CIO.
“The problem is when young people have difficulties or are exploited, everyone in the chain of command washes their hands of it. The irony here is that the State Department has good regulations for private sponsors, but not enough control to enforce them,” she added.
For its part, the State Department defended the program and said that they are currently taking steps to improve the supervision of sponsor companies.
“We have established monitoring procedures and increased the size of personnel for enforcing them. We have a new regulation program that includes the investigation of complaints and the monitoring of sponsors, so that they meet our standards,” said John Fleming, State Department Spokesman.
“This fall we will conduct a series of inspections on the ground. We are also working with the Bureau of Consular Affairs to identify fraudulent activities,” he said.
When asked by La Opinión for the number of personnel charged with supervising sponsor companies and of how many inspections they intended to conduct, Fleming did not respond. To date, five organizations have been sanctioned for regulatory violations and another 10 are under investigation.