February 2, 2012
The State Department took a modest step on Wednesday to cleaning up a major embarrassment. Its Summer Work Travel program for foreign university students was created decades ago to promote goodwill, education and cultural exchange but has since turned into a huge, poorly regulated and abuse-prone foreign guest-worker scheme. The department said it was barring one of the program’s largest sponsors, the Council for Educational Travel, USA, known as Cetusa, from bringing in any more workers, after it sent hundreds of young people to work in a Pennsylvania factory packing Hershey’s chocolates.
The students walked off the job in August to protest dangerous working conditions and low pay at a job they described as an elaborate bait and switch.
Each had paid $3,000 to $6,000 for the privilege of joining the J-1 visa program, which recruiters had billed as a rewarding summer: a taste of Willy Wonka plus the chance to see America. What the students got was endless hours packing and toting heavy boxes, risking injury for rock-bottom wages. There was no “cultural exchange,” unless you count immersion in the culture of an exploited, disposable work force. Once fees and jacked-up rents were deducted from their paychecks, the students netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour, far less than their American counterparts.
Which, as Professor Jennifer Gordon, a labor expert at Fordham Law School, recently noted in The Times, is the point. The summer program is the country’s largest guest-worker program because it is essentially unregulated and its workers are supercheap and lacking basic labor rights. Oversight is lax because the government relies on sponsors — which profit from the program — to do it.
The State Department is making an example of Cetusa, promising to tighten standards to keep sponsors in line and students out of dangerous industries like construction and roofing. The reforms need to go much further by explicitly protecting workers’ rights, including the right to organize, and giving oversight to the Labor Department.