Editor’s note: This is part two in a series of stories examining J-1 student visa workers on the Kenai Peninsula.
By Jenny Neyman
The most easily referenced image of foreign workers in the U.S. is of adults, working minimum-wage, menial-labor jobs, seeking a better life in America or escaping some kind of economic or political difficulties in their home countries. Hoping for U.S. citizenship or at least to make some money to support themselves or send to family back home. Taking American jobs, as one side of the immigration debate goes, or being all-too-easy victims of exploitation, says the other.
The image doesn’t usually involve university students, from stable-enough financial and societal situations to obtain an education and participate in a travel-abroad program, spending their summer break in the U.S. in order to see the sights, experience the culture and improve their English before returning to school.
But more and more these days, it should, said Stephen Boykewich, communications director with National Guestworker Alliance, an advocacy organization based in New Orleans. Though the university students and adult guest workers are in the U.S. through two different visa programs with two different purposes, their experiences can be similar.
“Increasingly companies have figured out this is the ultimate way to source cheap, exploitable labor for three to four months at a time with very little oversight,” Boykewich said.
The J-1 is a nonimmigrant visa allowing visitors to work in a select range of jobs —factories, fast food and the hospitality industry, for example — and travel in the U.S. for a limited period of time. The program was established by Congress in 1961 during a Cold War-era effort to improve international relations.
“It’s a cultural exchange program that’s supposed to bring students from around the world to experience American culture, have a great three or four months and then return to their home countries to win hearts and minds about what a great place America is,” Boykewich said.
To participate, university students must apply and be approved through a designated sponsor organization that is accredited through the U.S. State Department. There are 57 such organizations listed with the State Department as facilitating J-1 summer work programs. Some have slightly different program requirements or target different groups — like Walt Disney World Co. or the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.
Most function similarly — participants must be post-secondary students, ages 18 to somewhere in their 20s, and demonstrate proficiency with English. They pay an upfront fee (typically ranging from $3,000 to $6,000) for which the sponsor company arranges the necessary paperwork — including a temporary Social Security card and temporary medical insurance. The company also lines them up with employment, either assigning them a job or letting them secure one from a provided list of employers and openings.
Employers sometimes arrange for or provide the student workers some sort of housing as part of their job, but ultimately the students are responsible for paying their own living and travel expenses, as well as their plane tickets to and from the U.S.
Working during their stay is supposed to allow the students to make enough money to live and travel. Having a job is a requirement of the J-1 visa. The program allows a window of time outside of work — usually a few weeks after their job ends — where the students can travel in the U.S. before having to return home. But if they quit their job or are fired, they face deportation. No work, no play.
If all functions as intended, the students can have a rewarding summer learning experience in the U.S. and employers can tap into an easy source of eager employment, which can be especially helpful in meeting busy seasonal demands for workers. But the program doesn’t always function as the websites describe, and Boykewich said the instances in which things go awry are increasing.
“Of course, there are cases where the J-1 is used for its purpose, it’s used well and students have good experiences,” he said. “But the J-1 has very little oversight and very little attention has been paid to it. Because it’s been very poorly regulated, we’ve seen an increasing number of American companies in recent years turn the J-1 cultural exchange program into a huge, unregulated and often deeply exploitative guest-worker program.”
Regular nonimmigrant guest worker visas — H-2A and H-2B visas — certainly have a history of being used exploitively, in a sense creating situations of a captive workforce, sort of like modern-day indentured servants, Boykewich said. But there are stipulations on these visas that don’t exist with the J-1 cultural exchange visas, meant to protect the foreign workers as well as Americans seeking jobs. Increasing controversy and debate over immigration and American unemployment has resulted in stepped-up regulation and oversight of the more-typical temporary guest-worker visas, Boykewich said.
In order to hire an H-2A and H-2B guest worker, such as for seasonal agricultural work, an employer has to certify to the Department of Labor that they can’t find an American to fill the job. With a national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, it’s become more difficult for employers to make that claim and certify it when required to do so.
We were constantly — constantly — finding employers making those claims when local unemployment is 10 percent, and when local African-American and Latino unemployment can be as high as 20 to 25 percent. So, often, the claims that there’s no local worker that can fill the job is nonsense,” Boykewich said.
Guest workers also are supposed to be paid a comparable wage to American workers.
“What that’s supposed to do is avoid the undercutting of local labor markets. If companies can source much cheaper labor from abroad, then obviously it’s very hard for local workers to compete. First companies certify the claim that they can’t find local workers, then they bring in guest workers who themselves have paid exorbitant amounts of fees in order to come, and then those workers are paid a fraction of what a local worker would be paid,” Boykewich said. “But in recent years it’s been hard for employers to get away with exploiting the guest-worker visa program.”
The J-1 visa doesn’t carry the same stipulations. Employers don’t have to certify that they can’t find local workers. J-1 workers are still supposed to be paid and treated comparably, but employers can save on employment taxes, since they can avoid paying Medicare, Social Security and unemployment taxes for workers hired through the J-1 program.
The National Guestworker Alliance cites instances where J-1 students have ended up in exploitive work situations, including at a Hershey’s chocolate factory in Pennsylvania this August. Hershey’s used to employ unionized workers for packing candy bars at the factory, starting at $18 to $30 an hour, but switched to outsourcing distribution to a nonunion company that hires most of its workers from the J-1 program, according to the NGA. About 400 foreign students were put to work at the factory this summer, paid minimum wage of $8 an hour. After fees and deductions — including for crowded housing — their net pay was between $1 and $3.50 an hour, the NGA said.
“You pay $5,000 to come to the U.S. for the summer, you’re making $1 an hour, it’s a recipe for exploitation,” Boykewich said.
Hundreds of J-1 students participated in a walkout demonstration in front of the plant, in Palmyra, Pa., on Aug. 17. But that kind of response is rare, Boykewich said. Students may be afraid to lose their jobs — and thus face deportation — if they speak up. They may come from a cultural background that discourages making waves, or they may simply not know what to do or who to turn to. The sponsor organization arranging their visa may not be responsive to problems the students face, or they could even work for an exploitive employer that overtly discourages complaints.
“It’s very hard for students to ever speak up, organize or face the exploitation,” Boykewich said. “There are constant threats of retaliation and deportation from employers. If they speak up at all and are threatened with deportation they are afraid to go home and face their families who have come up with extraordinary amounts of money to give their children the chance of a lifetime,” Boykewich said.
Complicating the situation are sometimes negative sentiments about foreign guest workers, particularly in the face of U.S. unemployment rates. Participation in the J-1 program has skyrocketed over the years. According to the U.S. State Department, in 2010 there were 132,342 summer work travel participants. Meanwhile the national unemployment rate has hovered around 9 to 10 percent.
“Sometimes in local communities where people are struggling, especially at a time where there is so much political tension, economic tension and immigration is such a sensitive topic, often the first response is against the foreign guest workers or the J-1 students — ‘What are they doing here taking our jobs?’” Boykewich said. “Once the exploited guest workers or J-1 students and local unemployed folks or anxiously employed folks get together, they discover that they’re both in exactly the same boat.
“They’re fighting exactly the same fight because both the exploitation of guest workers and J-1 students and the struggle of local people to have living-wage jobs, they’re both the result of decades of corporate greed that has led to a search for the cheapest, most exploitive workers possible. The way that both folks win is when they fight alongside each other. That’s the only way anyone’s jobs are secure is when both groups understand they’ve both been victims of corporate greed and they both have a chance to fight together,” he said.
In Alaska, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development doesn’t track numbers of J-1 summer workers and doesn’t have oversight of the workers or their employment, since it’s a national State Department program, said Beth Leschper, communications director for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. According to the State Department, there are 4,415 summer work travel participants in Alaska this year, most often working in fish-processing and fast-food jobs. The unemployment rate in Alaska in July was estimated at 7.7 percent.
Even if Alaskans or local communities were to voice a concern about guest workers taking local jobs, Leschper said the Alaska Labor Department doesn’t regulate the J-1 program.
Boykewich asks that people not blame the students for problems created by greed or lax oversight of the J-1 program. After all, they’re here for the cultural experience, not a minimum-wage job. If anyone is going to complain about hiccups in the program, the students are the ones most often getting the short end of the stick.
“They’re sold a dream of cultural exchange with an element of work. They often wind up working for companies that had absolutely no intention of offering them any kind of cultural exchange,” he said.