Southern Poverty Law Centre (USA), 2014
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, fastfood 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.” 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.
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. 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.
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. The State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report noted that vulnerabilities in the J-1 program can “potentially facilitate human trafficking.”
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 employmentrelated 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.
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.