By Joe Guzzardi
May 26, 2017
Another summer means another scandal and more fraud in the federal government’s J-1 Summer Work Travel program (SWT). Created more than 50 years ago to encourage good will between U.S. young adults and international visitors, SWT has repeatedly been exposed as a cheap labor tool that exploits the foreigners that come to work and displaces American kids that need summer jobs.
Because the State Department defines “summer” as the visa holders’ summer, and not our June, July and August, the foreign nationals can come to work in an amusement park, but stay on for ski resort or other winter-related employment. The J visa has no numerical limits, and employers aren’t required to seek out Americans first. And, for good reasons from their perspectives, they don’t. Under SWT terms, employers aren’t obligated to pay the prevailing wage, Social Security or other taxes.
Cases involving employer abuse are numerous and – because they often involve some of America’s most prestigious, profitable corporations – legendary. In a 2011 case against Hershey and the contractors that brought the youths from abroad to Pennsylvania, a Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights study found that about 400 foreign students from China, Turkey, Moldova, Mongolia, Romania, Ghana and Thailand “endured abusive supervision, unsafe and grueling working conditions, often on night shifts which isolated them from Americans workers.” The unsuspecting victims were docked automatic, but previously undisclosed, salary deductions for (substandard) housing and other related employment costs. The students claimed that their minimum wage, net of employer deductions, didn’t cover their travel, visa and placement fees to get to the U.S. and left them without return air fare. Young McDonald’s workers had similar complaints, and filed a grievance with the State Department. Both Hershey and McDonald’s SWTs eventually won a $200,000 Labor Department settlement.
The Hershey and McDonald stories made national headlines. But other J-1 abuses continue under the radar. Last year, ten Dominican Republic college students signed up to work at local ice cream shops and cafes in popular Myrtle Beach, S.C. Intermediaries promised that accommodations would be “dorm-like.” Instead, according to a complaint filed against the responsible parties, the students never worked at any of the promised jobs, and “bed bug-infested” housing was at a motor inn that the Myrtle Beach fire department had previously shut down.
The J visa is unregulated, and scam artists are fearless. On the Internet, a Russian placement service published this ad: “Come work in the best strip clubs in the United States, on a J-1 visa.” Over the years, federal watchdogs, the Government Accountability Office and the State Department Inspector General, have excoriated the SWT. House Judiciary Committee hearings have been scheduled, then abruptly and inexplicably canceled.
According to the most recent available data, about 216,000 J-1 visa holders are in the U.S. as well as another 8,200 J-2 visa, employment-eligible spouses. Yet despite the increased popularity of the J-1 as a cheap labor vehicle, and its obvious link to thousands of American kids’ displacement – about 50 percent of that working-age population is unemployed and would eagerly work at summer ice cream parlor and coffee shop jobs – tighter standards remain a pipe dream.
The J and dozens of other temporary, employment-based visas are high on the list of reasons that so many Americans wonder why, for a change, they can’t come first.
Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @joeguzzardi19.