Every summer, foreign college students pack their bags and come to the United States for a cultural experience. They live, work, and travel across America-from California to Cape Cod-as a part of the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program. But reports exposing employers for exploiting students have advocacy groups insisting on reform.
To make the cultural exchange program possible, the U.S. State Department issues the students J-1 visas, non-immigrant documents that allow students to enjoy up to four months living an American life. As participants in the program, the students must work. Many take jobs as au pairs, camp counselors, interns, teachers or trainees in a chosen occupational field. But critics say the program, which brings more than 100,000 students to the United States each year, has become a multimillion-dollar international scam that provides companies with cheap labor.
In May, the State Department announced major changes to the program, expanding a list of jobs that students are not allowed to work, including manufacturing, construction and agriculture. The program also bans participants from working in the sex industry. The list revision is the latest in a series of steps the government took to fix the program after The Associated Press reported in 2010 that abuses included participants working in strip clubs or living and working in conditions they compared to indentured servitude.
On Tuesday, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization that also advocates for gay rights and same-sex marriage, submitted a list of recommendations that included adding housekeeping to the list of prohibited jobs. The cultural exchange program has left participants vulnerable to exploitation, SPLC representatives said.
The jobs are meant to help students of modest means offset the costs of their travel. But student feedback reveals negative experiences that far outweigh the monetary benefits.
The SPLC said it interviewed hundreds of program participants in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. In 2011, the organization found students working as housekeepers at a casino in Mississippi. Their pay was based on how many rooms they cleaned in a day. The company that arranged the students' jobs and housing charged so much for rent that one participant reported taking home just $189 for 67 hours of work - less than $3 an hour, the SPLC said.
In one of the worst cases of student abuse by an employer, a woman told the AP she was beaten, raped and forced to work as a stripper in Detroit after being promised a job as a waitress in Virginia. A federal indictment last year in New York charged that members of the Gambino and Bonnano mafia families and Russian mobsters used fraudulent job offers to help eastern European women come to the United States to work in strip clubs.
Another case involved students who protested last year at a candy factory that packs Hershey chocolates in Hershey, Pa. The students demonstrated against what they called hard labor and pay deductions for rent that often left them with little money. The company that "sponsored," or employed, those students lost its State Department certification.
The SPLC said the department should take jurisdiction over employers rather than leaving it to sponsor companies to police the program because a sponsor "has little incentive to self-police or regulate its business partners." Offending companies should be banned, the SPLC said.
"Students dream of a summer full of making new friends, improving their skills, and filling up their bank accounts," wrote Anna Poplasky in "Wanted: Compassion for J-1 Visitors," an article recently published The Cape Cod Times. "Yet they face a range of issues: finding safe housing, getting jobs that pay enough to cover the huge costs of the trip, and trying to figure out American life."
As founder of the Cape Cod Summer Citizens, a service provider program for J-1 students, Poplasky has seen the difficulties that students' jobs pose to a positive summer experience. She recalled a particular interaction with two J-1 program students from Kyrgyzstan who said they were unsatisfied with their jobs because of the 9-mile commute to work they had to make by bicycle early in the morning and late at night.
In its May announcement, the State Department acknowledged that the work aspect of the program "has too often overshadowed the core cultural component necessary for the Summer Work Travel Program to be consistent with the intent of the (1961) Fulbright-Hays Act"-the legislation that brought the program into being.
"At its core, there's nothing wrong with having an exchange program," SPLC deputy legal director Dan Werner said. "The real flaw is when this program is used as a tool to exploit workers and that's what it has turned into."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.