State Dep’t Revises Foreign Student Job Program After Abuse Complaints – NYT – 5/4/12

State Department Revises Foreign Student Job Program After Abuse Complaints

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May 4, 2012

The State Department, responding to a wave of complaints from foreign students about abuses under a summer cultural exchange program, issued new rules on Friday significantly revising the types of jobs the students can do, prohibiting them from most warehouse, construction, manufacturing and food-processing work.

The rules are the most extensive changes the State Department has made to its largest cultural exchange program since several hundred foreign students protested last summer at a plant in Pennsylvania that packs Hershey’s chocolates. The students said they were forced to work on grueling production lines lifting heavy boxes, often on night shifts, isolated in the plant from any American workers.

After paycheck deductions, the students said, they were paid so little they could not afford to travel in the United States, as the program promised.

Robin Lerner, deputy assistant secretary of state for private sector exchange, said the department’s goal with the revisions was “to bring the program back to its core cultural purposes.”

The five-decade-old Summer Work Travel Program brings more than 100,000 foreign university students here each year to work for up to three months and then travel for a month. The program, which uses a visa known as J-1, is designed to give students who are not from wealthy backgrounds a chance to experience the United States. The students’ trips are arranged by American sponsoring agencies that find jobs and housing for them.

The department said “the work component” of the program “has too often overshadowed the core cultural component” that Congress intended. The department also said the changes responded to concerns raised by the students at the Hershey’s packing plant.

Those students were “concentrated in single locations for long hours in jobs that provided little or no opportunity to interact with U.S. citizens,” the department wrote to explain the rules. They were “exposed to workplace and safety hazards” and “subjected to predatory practices through wage deductions” for housing.

Under rules that will take effect early next week, international students will no longer be allowed to work in warehouse or packing jobs, on night shifts or in jobs the Labor Department has designated “hazardous to youth.” In addition, the students will not be placed in jobs involving gambling, traveling fairs, massage or tattooing.

After Nov. 1, students will not be allowed in most factory jobs, including manufacturing and food processing. They will be barred from mining, oil exploration and most construction jobs.

The State Department also established new requirements for sponsors to inform students about specific cultural activities that will be available and to review all jobs offered to students to make sure they are appropriate. Job placements “must provide opportunities for participants to interact regularly with U.S. citizens and experience U.S. culture during the work portion of their programs,” the rules specify.

Most students under the program have worked in resort jobs, in hotels or restaurants as waiters, desk clerks, lifeguards or maintenance staff members. Many worked in national parks.

The department also tightened requirements on sponsors to “confirm” annually with employers that no American workers were displaced by students. Employers will not be allowed to hire foreign students if they have laid off workers in the previous four months.

“These rules are a clear vindication by Secretary Clinton of the students’ claims,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, the group that helped organize the Hershey students; he was referring to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “They were right, and Hershey was wrong.”

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