Cultural Exchange Students Exploited for Cheap Labor

Exchange students did not get jobs as promised.

Exchange students did not get jobs as promised.

Some students from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic who were promised opportunities to experience American culture as they worked on jobs in the U.S. have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of State (State Department) claiming that they were used as cheap labor for businesses in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

The eleven students were participants of the J-1 Summer Work Travel program that was created by congress more than 50 years ago. The goal of the program is to foster good will between the people of the U.S. and other countries. Foreign youths who participate in the program pay U.S. job placement agencies called “sponsors” to place them with U.S. employers in jobs that offer them cultural exchange opportunities. Sponsors for the program are designated by the State Department, the agency that oversees the program.

Employers do not have to pay payroll taxes for the J-1 workers, thereby saving approximately eight percent on payroll taxes. The jobs also do not have to be advertised locally; nor are employers required to pay the prevailing local wage for each position.

 In July, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint with the State Department on behalf of the students. According to the complaint, the students were promised opportunities to experience U.S. culture as they worked jobs at resorts and ice cream shops, but were instead placed with a labor broker who sold them to various hotels to perform exhausting housekeeping and laundry jobs that offered little opportunity for cultural exchange.

The complaint further relates that when the students were not working, they lived in housing arranged by the labor broker. The housing was “cramped and substandard”; eight workers were placed in a small, bed bug-infested apartment with one bathroom. Each student was charged $90.00 per week for rent.

When a student complained about work and housing conditions, an official with the labor broker said “troublemakers” would be kicked out of the program. Such retaliation against J-1 workers violates State Department regulations for the program.

The suit seeks to prohibit the labor broker from participating in the program. It also seeks reimbursement to the students for their expenses to participate in the program.

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