J-1 student work-travel program cheats American workers, exploits students
By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
When most people think about foreign exchange programs, they think about American students in Paris, Rome or Madrid, practicing their foreign language skills and soaking up art and architecture. So take pity on the foreign students who signed up for the State Department’s J-1 work-travel program. They work for a pittance at menial jobs that once paid American workers a decent wage.
The J-1 student work-travel program was created in 1961 to offer work opportunities and cultural enrichment for foreign students, and in the process, create goodwill ambassadors for the United States. Today, students from Poland, China, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus sign up and pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of meeting Americans and practicing English.
But the kids aren’t working in professional settings that complement their studies. They’re toiling in warehouses for huge companies such as Hershey’s, which have laid off hundreds of workers, and resorts, from Disney World to Morey’s Pier in Wildwood, and for much lower wages than Americans earned doing the same tasks. Companies who hire J-1s are not required to advertise to American workers first. It’s a great deal for U.S. companies, because they don’t have to pay payroll taxes, Social Security or health insurance for J-1s. One Spring Lake staffing company even has a nifty calculator to help businesses compare the costs of hiring J-1 vs. American workers.
Gee, thanks, fellas. During one of the most vicious unemployment downturns in memory, this is spitting in the eye of jobless Americans.
It’s no sweet deal for foreign students. They pay sponsoring organizations as much as $10,000 to secure visas and get placed in menial, sometimes back-breaking work. They hope to earn enough to pay off their debt and have some left over to see the United States. However, J-1 students, packing Kit Kats at a Hershey plant in Pennsylvania, found the money evaporated quickly, especially after housing costs were deducted. Their situation brings to mind a 21st-century version of “The Grapes of Wrath,” with students on the same go-nowhere treadmill as the Joad family of migrant laborers. With one exception: The Joads could never be deported. It’s something the brave students at Hershey risked, to bring attention to their plight.
State department officials say an investigation into the Hershey abuses is ongoing. But they can’t stop there. This program is shortchanging foreign students and American workers. A complete overhaul would be better.