JACKSON, Miss. – The State Department announced major changes Friday to one of its premier cultural-exchange programs following an investigation by The Associated Press that found widespread abuses.
The agency issued new rules for the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program, which brings more than 100,000 foreign college students to the United States each year.
The changes are the latest in a series of steps the State Department has taken to fix the program since the 2010 AP investigation. The investigation found that some participants were working in strip clubs, not always willingly, while others were put in living and working conditions they compared to indentured servitude.
The J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program, created under the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961, allows foreign college students to spend up to four months living and working in the United States. It was meant to foster cultural understanding, but has become a booming, multimillion-dollar international business.
"In recent years, the work component has too often overshadowed the core cultural component necessary for the Summer Work Travel Program to be consistent with the intent of the Fulbright-Hays Act," the State Department said in announcing the new rules.
"Also, the Department learned that criminal organizations were involving participants in incidents relating to the illegal transfer of cash, the creation of fraudulent businesses, and violations of immigration law."
The new rules are meant to ensure that students are treated properly and that they get jobs where there will be interaction with Americans and exposure to U.S. culture.
Some of the rules are effective immediately, while others will take effect in November, including a significant one that would prohibit participants from working in "goods-producing" industries such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture. The rules also ban participants from working in jobs in which the primary hours are between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
"The new reforms for the Summer Work Travel program focus on strengthening protections for the health, safety and welfare of the participants, and on bringing the program back to its primary purpose, which is to provide a cultural experience for international students," Robin Lerner, a deputy assistant secretary for the State Department, said in a statement Friday.
"This is a valuable people-to-people diplomacy program and the changes allow us to improve the unique qualities of the program by providing clarity for participants, their sponsors and employers on what is and is not appropriate."
George Collins, an inspector with the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Department in the Florida Panhandle who has investigated abuses in the program for nearly a decade, said he is pleased with the changes.
"While I might have preferred stronger requirements here or there, I think the new regulations go a long way to help protect workers from the kinds of abuse we have seen routinely," Collins said. "We intend to check implementation in the field, and will notify the State Department of any activities we believe violate these rules."
The visa program is aimed at allowing students of modest means to work in seasonal or temporary jobs as a way of offsetting the costs of their travel to the U.S. More than 1 million students have participated in a variety of jobs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Most participants enjoy their time in the U.S., establishing lifelong memories and friendships. For some, the program is a frightening experience that leaves them with a bad impression of the country.
In one of the worst cases of abuse, 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 the Russian mob were using fraudulent job offers to help Eastern European women come to the U.S. to work in strip clubs.
More common than sex-trade abuses have been reports of shabby housing, scarce work hours and paltry pay, alleged conditions that led workers to protest last year at a candy factory that packs Hershey chocolates in Hershey, Pa. Those workers complained of hard physical labor and pay deductions for rent that often left them with little money. The company that sponsored those students lost its State Department certification.
Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, a workers advocacy group, said the changes vindicate the 400 students who protested against conditions at the candy factory and the changes are a step in the right direction.
"Businesses have grown used to a profit formula based on shifting the nature of work in the U.S. from permanent to temporary, from stable to precarious. Increasingly, they do that by eroding wages and conditions for U.S. workers, and treating guestworkers, including cultural exchange students, as the ultimate source of cheap, exploitable labor," Soni said.
Some of the new rules are aimed at the 49 companies the State Department designates as official "sponsors," whose job is to help the students obtain visas and other documents, find jobs and housing, and make sure the participants are treated properly. The new rules prohibit sponsors from paying host employers to accept participants and require them to provide itemized lists of all student fees.
"A core presumption underlies the Department's renewed focus on the cultural component of the Summer Work Travel Program," the State Department said, adding that only sponsors who can show their students are being exposed to the culture outside of work will be given the two-year contracts that are issued.
Daniel Costa, an immigration policy lawyer for the Economic Policy Institute who has studied the program extensively, said there are positive changes, like the rule that prohibits staffing agencies from subcontracting workers to other companies, but he said there's more work to do.
"I think it would have been better to use stronger language and explicitly state that sponsors should be prohibited from forcing a J-1 worker to remain on a job if they have legitimate complaints, or from threatening the J-1 with program termination if they don't remain on the job," he said. "That seems to be a common issue."
He also said the State Department should keep a black list of "bad actor employers" and prohibit sponsors from working with them.
"Just hoping that employers will 'cooperate' and having no sanctions available if they don't, allows employers to act with impunity and to hop from sponsor to sponsor if they act illegally. This keeps in place the incentive for sponsors to cover-up the bad acts of employers because the sponsor is the only one that will actually get in trouble by sanctions."
In a previous round of changes, the State Department said it had temporarily stopped accepting any new sponsors and limited the number of future participants to about 109,000 students annually. The program peaked with about 153,000 participants in 2008.
The number of participants should be lower and tied to the unemployment rate in the U.S., Costa said.
There also are three new rules meant to protect American workers, including prohibiting from the program companies that have had layoffs in the previous 120 days or whose workers are on strike.
The State Department says it wants to ensure the jobs are really seasonal or temporary and won't displace U.S. workers.
The program requires participants to come to the U.S. during their summer breaks, which fall at different times in different parts of the world. In the past, that had allowed companies to fill what were actually permanent jobs with a series of student workers.
Businesses that hire a foreign student over an American can save 8 percent because they don't have to pay Medicare, Social Security and unemployment taxes. Also, the foreigners must have their own health insurance.
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