JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – One of the country's leading civil rights organizations is calling on the U.S. government to reform cultural exchange programs, saying they have left some foreign participants vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, said in a report Tuesday that U.S. State Department's cultural exchange programs are providing businesses in the United States with cheap and exploitable labor at the expense of participants who pay thousands of dollars to experience American culture.
The lengthy report also cites a 2010 investigation by The Associated Press that uncovered similar labor and housing problems in the J-1 Summer Work Travel program, which annually allows more than 100,000 foreign college students to spend their summers working in the U.S.
Susan Pittman, a spokeswoman with the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that she couldn't respond directly to the report. But she said the agency has made a number of improvements, including passage of stronger regulations in 2012.
The new rules included capping the number of participants in the Summer Work Travel program at 109,000 and limiting the kinds of jobs that participants are allowed to take in an effort to ensure a strong cultural component in the program.
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Pittman also said a number of companies designated by the State Department as official sponsors to facilitate the program have been sanctioned or removed from the program and that the agency has increased staff and site visits to check on sponsors and participants.
The December 2010 AP investigation found that some participants had worked in strip clubs, either by choice or because they were forced to. Other participants took home $1 an hour or less, after housing and transportation deductions, for menial jobs such as housekeepers. In one of the worst cases, a Ukrainian woman told AP she was lured with a promise to work at a restaurant in Virginia in 2004, but was beaten and forced to work at a strip club in Detroit.
The SPLC said it responded to complaints throughout the South, but much of its work focused on Myrtle Beach, S.C., Lake Charles, La., Biloxi, Miss., and Gulf Shores, Ala.
During a news conference call by SPLC discussing the new report, Christian Llontop of Peru described to reporters how he spent thousands of dollars to travel to a resort in Biloxi, Miss., but was assigned work for a subcontractor who paid him $4.75 per hotel room that he cleaned. He said long hours left him little time or energy to experience American culture.
"This experience was horrible," Llontop said through a translator. "I felt tricked."
The participants work all over the country, from theme parks in Florida and California to ski destinations in Colorado and Montana.
The Summer Work Travel program, which allows college students to visit for up to four months, is one of the State Department's most popular visas. SPLC said it found similar problems in the State Department's longer term programs for interns and trainees.
A lawyer for SPLC attorney said during the conference call that the programs also displace U.S. workers while providing businesses with "cheap and exploitable labor."
Founded in 1971, the SPLC is a nonprofit group based in Montgomery, Ala., that is often associated with fighting hate groups, but the organization says it also is an advocate for at-risk children, immigrants and others.
Among SPLC's recommendations are for requirements that U.S. employers certify that American workers are not available before hiring J-1 workers and to pay the foreign workers a prevailing wage established by the Department of Labor.