Culture exchange program clashes with students’ expectation
By Joanna Law
Many young students in China want an opportunity to go abroad. Most of them like to visit the United States, where they get to see places they have seen from Hollywood movies, experience different cultures, and learn English. The U.S. government has set up a program which, for years, has been an attraction for foreign students to stay and work in the country temporarily. But there is a risk: The students may become cheap labor before they know it.
“From my experience of talking to thousands of guest workers over the years, there’s a real lack of protections in the U.S. law for these workers. And U.S. companies were really taking advantage of that [by getting] additional labor from these guest workers. It has been going on for years,” Jacob Horwitz, Lead Organizer of National Guestworker Alliance told People’s Daily Online USA.
Exploitation, he added, is wide spread.
The program, called J-1 Visa Summer Work/Travel Cultural Exchange (SWT), is set up by the State Department to offer foreign students an affordable gateway to travel to the United States. It prizes that foreign students, if granted the J-1 visa (guest worker), will be provided with “an opportunity to live and work in the United States during their summer vacation from college or university to experience and to be exposed to the people and way of life in the United States.” The maximum length of the program is four months, in which students are free to travel around the country after working for three months.
To be eligible the applicants must be post-secondary school students enrolled in and actively pursuing a degree or other full-time course of study at a post-secondary educational institution outside of the States. Many young people treated this as a valuable opportunity for cultural exposure. From the program’s information brochure issued by the US Department of State Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, the types of jobs that students may be assigned include entry level service positions in resorts, hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks. The brochure also states that U.S. Sponsors “may not place [students] in any position in the adult entertainment industry.”
Nevertheless, depends on the students’ luck and the conscience of the sponsors and employers, they may end up working in a factory, a fishing plant, or, in some unfortunate cases, in strip clubs.
“This was another example of people of bad intention who managed to get sponsors,” Jerry Kammer, Senior Research Fellow Center for Immigration Studies said in an interview with People’s Daily Online USA. In order to come to the States as a guest worker, he said the program requires that every student must work with a sponsor. The sponsors are all American organizations who work with recruiters in the home countries, and they also work with recruiters in the States. Sometimes, these recruiters want to make money from the young students by placing them in jobs that are inappropriate, like strip clubs
“It should not happen. It should not happen even once,” Kammer said.
Early this month, the State Department has expelled a leading sponsor known as Cetusa from its sponsors’ list. The company is held responsible for placing hundreds of foreign students in a Hershey’s chocolate packing plant in Pennsylvania. Participates were forced to pack 30 kilograms of chocolates, lift it up for every three seconds for four hours without a break. They received little wages and were isolated in an unacceptable working condition.
“These students ended up living in company housing [and] losing money for back-breaking work. [They were] completely isolated from improving English for meeting Americans. They were even told that they weren’t allowed to speak on the jobs. Their expectations were completely unmet,” Horwitz said.
According to an article from National Guestworker Alliance, a Cetusa representative said to one student at the Hershey’s plant, “You wanted a cultural exchange? This is America and this is the way we do things here.”
Zhou Lingjia, a university student from China, was one of the program participants at Hershey’s last summer. She asked that her university and other info not be disclosed at this time. Zhou told People’s Daily Online USA that students should be allowed to speak while they work and assigned to jobs that do not harm their bodies. “It cannot be jobs like those from Cetusa and Hershey’s. The J1 summer work travel program needs to be about cultural exchange,” she said.
She said the shutting down of the sponsor is “just” and appreciates the Department of State’s decision for doing so, but added that the job is not yet done. “Although this bad sponsor was banned from the program, there may be many other sponsors that could take the place of Cetusa tomorrow. We do not want future Chinese students to suffer in this program.”
Ever since SWT established in 1963, the government has not been taking adequate actions to look into problems or regulate the program. There are regulations, but they are insufficient and have not been implemented properly. Not until in 2010 did they start to seriously evaluate the program, ordered by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. But only when hundreds of furious student workers staged a protest at the Hershey’s plant last summer did they speed up the reviewing process.
However, of the current regulations that are already in place, those that actually guarantee for culture exchange or protect students from exploitation are scarce. Consequently, under the lax administration and regulations, it leaves loopholes for some employers and sponsors to exploit the program participants. In Cetusa’ case, while the sponsor is supposed to monitor their students and assist them when problems arise, they ignored them and threatened them.
“The employers wouldn’t listen to them. If you don’t like this work, they can revoke your visa and you might never be able to get back to the U.S. again,” said Julie Mao, Counsel with the National Guestworker Alliance in an interview with People’s Daily Online. “[The students] really felt like they had no choice but to keep on working.”
Kammer said sponsors in fact play an important role in SWT, and they should be made themselves available. After all, he said, all these are young people who are coming from different countries and cultures into the U.S. culture.
“Students sometimes don’t know where to speak out. They don’t understand our culture. They don’t understand the way things work in the United States. Sometimes, they are intimidated by people who hired them,” he said.
SWT participants are supposed to be allowed to travel around the country after working for three months. However, this isn’t often the case. In Hershey’s incident, students did not have the money and time to do so. They were still in heavy debt after three months due to the fees they paid to come to the U.S. They could not afford to travel. Besides, under the program set up by Hershey’s and the recruiter, the students were required to work until the last day of their departure.
“All they did was spent a summer in a factory packing chocolates and almost no pay,” Horwitz said.
One of the main problems is that there is no oversight of this program from the way the State Department has set up. There is also a lack of direct chain of communication between the students and the government, Mao said.
“The sponsors have financial interest to have students come years after years. If students complain about the job, they don’t actually have the best interest of the students in mind, because they financially have a greater interest in continuing to work at these employers,” she said.
Professor Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, Co-Director of Immigration Studies at New York University and the Founding Director of the Harvard Immigration Projects told People’s Daily Online USA that “[b]ringing foreign students into the United States and then exploiting them as cheap labor is beyond the pale. Unfortunately, this seems to be another indication of a broken immigration system that mocks the free and dignified movement of human beings. It is the triumph of exploitation over the fundamental rights of students to pursue the education they had been promised.”
In fact, the government has been struggling to set up rules to regulate SWT in the past year. But most of them were not substantial and properly enforced. In April 2011, the State Department announced that it would amend regulations of the SWT. It acknowledged that there were “potential risks and harms related to the Summer Work Travel program and believe that the current regulations do not sufficiently protect national security interests; the Department’s reputation; and the health, safety, and welfare of Summer Work Travel program participants.” The new regulations were said to “clarify existing policies and implement new procedures” with an aim to enhance “the integrity and programmatic effectiveness of Summer Work Travel exchanges.” In June, the government provided details of the new regulations for J-1 visas, including a special e-mail address and a toll-free telephone number, and “an aggressive and proactive system to monitor sponsors better”. It stated that it was “confident that implantation of these safeguards should provide stronger protections and make this a more viable program”. Then, in August there was the Hershey’s protest. In November, the State Department announced the restrictions on the size of the program and a moratorium on designation of new SWT sponsor organizations. It acknowledged that “despite these new regulations, the number of program complaints received this year continues to remain unacceptably high and includes, among other issues, reports of improper work placements, fraudulent job offers, job cancellations upon participant arrival in the United States, inappropriate regarding housing and transportation.”
Before the restriction took effect in November, SWT had been growing continuously. The total number of participants swelled from 20,000 in 1996, the year when it was first established, to 103, 000 in 2011, according to the State Department. In 2010, out of the120, 000 college and university students, 5,056 were Chinese.
“The most important thing is that the State Department makes changes that improve and restore faith in the J1 Work and Travel program. Cetusa was banned from the program, but there are others like Cetusa and other students in need. We can prevent another Cetusa from happening if the State Department had good rules to govern the program and create a cultural exchange program,” said a Chinese student to People’s Daily Online USA. The student asked to be identified as Wen from one of Dalian’s universities and was one of the Hershey’s guest workers.
This month, at the same time when the government shut down Cetusa, it has announced that a new set of regulations will be issued soon. This shows that the government is taking the initiative to poke into the issues. Though nothing concrete has been circulated, but groups and students are hoping that the new regulations will protect the student guest workers.
“We are not sure what the State Department will enact, but we hope that there will be regulations on fees that are charged to the students to come, so that students aren’t coming in already have a heavy burden of debt. We hope that there will be a special regulation about what it means to be a cultural exchange. Employers and recruiters would have to specify the jobs to these students and explain how they actually increase mutual cultural understanding between the U.S. and their country,” Horwitz said.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment by telephone and email.