Culture Shock: The Exploitation of J-1 Cultural Exchange Workers


“Employers, sponsors, and overseas recruiting agencies have hijacked the cultural exchange program, turning it into a low-wage guest worker program that benefits their bottom lines at the expense of these workers and the United States’ reputation.  Each year that the State Department and Congress fail to reform this program is another year thousands of young people return to their home countries with stories about being exploited by U.S. employers with an insatiable appetite for cheap, vulnerable labor.” (Meredith Stewart, report author and SPLC staff attorney)

Sisters Laura and Adela of the Dominican Republic were forced to sleep in these stables at a resort in Tennessee after being promised free room and board at a "fancy" hotel.  Photo courtesy of SPLC.
Sisters Laura and Adela of the Dominican Republic were forced to sleep in these stables at a resort in Tennessee after being promised free room and board at a “fancy” hotel. Photo courtesy of SPLC.

Laura Franco and her sister thought they had found a life-changing opportunity.

After meeting with a labor recruiter and spending hours browsing through a website, both were convinced that leaving the Dominican Republic to work in Tennessee as part of the U.S. State Department’s cultural exchange program would be a great way to spend their summer break from college in 2012.

According to the recruiter, the sisters would clean rooms in a “fancy hotel” where room and board would be free. The sisters saw it as an opportunity to improve their English and meet people from other cultures – a true cultural exchange.

When they arrived in Tennessee, they found a far different reality. They didn’t receive free room and board at a fancy hotel. Instead, they were ordered to sleep with the horses in the resort’s stables. And, in addition to cleaning hotel rooms, they were expected to tend to the horses and maintain the stables.

Laura and her sister are not alone.

Click here to read the press release and report in its entirety:  Culture Shock: The Exploitation of J-1 Cultural Exchange Workers.

culture_shock_thumbMy take:  In two words:  disgraceful and  shameful.  There are three obvious ingredients for a recipe of failure:  1)  the program represents an opportunity for employers to reduce labor costs because they are not required to pay payroll taxes for J-1 workers; 2) employers count on passive and pliable foreign workers to keep their mouths shut about the broken promises, lies, poor working conditions and other forms of exploitation; and 3) a lack of official oversight and accountability.

Some stories I’ve heard from Vietnamese participants in this program sound like Alexis de Tocqueville meets Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Many of international students participate in the J-1 visa Summer Work Travel Program, while others go to the U.S. to gain practical professional experience as part of the J-1 Trainee and Intern Program.  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.”

Thanks to the Southern Poverty Law Center for its investigation, report and recommendations.  The ball is in the U.S. State Department’s court.

MAA

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