Exchange programme rife with abuse, say critics

The US State Department announced major reforms earlier this month to its premier cultural exchange programme, following a wave of complaints by student workers over low pay and squalid working conditions.

The new rules, issued on 4 May, cover a wide range of institutional and workplace regulations and are designed to better protect visiting students from potential abuses and also ensure that employers are complying with cultural components of the exchange programme.

The J-1 Summer Work Travel Programme, established in 1961, was designed to give foreign college students a taste of American life by allowing them to work in the US for three months and then travel for one month. It brings more than 100,000 foreign college students to the US each year.

Recently, however, the programme has been criticised for being little more than a temporary worker programme, rife with employee exploitation and abuse.

“In recent years, the work component of the Summer Work Travel Programme has too often overshadowed the core cultural component necessary for the programme to be consistent with the Fulbright-Hays Act,” said the State Department in an announcement of the new rules.

“In addition, there have been complaints regarding job placements, work conditions and participant accommodations.”

Still, the number of participants jumped from about 21,000 in 1996 to more than 152,000 in 2008. Students come from around the world, primarily from China, Russia, Brazil and countries in Eastern Europe.

The programme made headlines last year when hundreds of J-1 student workers at a Hershey’s chocolate factory in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, went on strike over harsh working conditions.

According to the State Department, the students “were concentrated in single locations for long hours in jobs that provided little or no opportunity to interact with US citizens” and “were exposed to workplace safety and health hazards” and “subjected to predatory practices through wage deductions for housing costs”.

Partly to blame are the American sponsoring agencies that help the students find work; many are multi-million dollar agencies with a lot to lose, said Danielle Grijalva, director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students.

“This is lucrative money,” said Grijalva, and asked sarcastically: “What’s an abuse here, what’s an abuse there? It’s under-reported.”

The most significant change is the ban on jobs deemed ‘hazardous to youth’ by the Labour Department, along with jobs in areas such as manufacturing, agriculture, mining and construction.

Other key changes include capping the number of programme participants at 109,000, prohibiting employers from filling permanent jobs with rotating temporary workers and instituting a mandatory cultural exchange component.

Experts say there is room for improvement.

Although the State Department did revise its prevailing wage requirements, an employer is not required to pay a J-1 worker the same as what they would pay an American worker in the same position.

“There is no mechanism or legal process to certify the wage,” said Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. “An employer would rather employ the J-1 worker over the US worker.”

The State Department will announce further reforms toward the end of the year.

“A lot of people will be watching because it’s vital,” said Grijalva. “The image that these visitors take back from our country – it is imperative that it’s a positive impression.”

Foreign graduate students at American universities can also expect changes.

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security said it would expand the list of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) programmes that allow foreign students to stay on an additional 17 months during their optional practical training, or OPT.

OPT allows foreign students who graduate from American colleges and universities to stay on and work in the US for one year after graduating.