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Labor abuse in the name of “cultural exchange,” courtesy of the J-1 visa program (again)

On March 6, 2013, student guestworkers from around the world held a surprise strike to expose severe exploitation at McDonald’s restaurants near Harrisburg, PA.  The students guestworkers, who came from Argentina, Peru, Chile, Malaysia, among other Asian and Latin American countries, each paid $3000 to participate in the U.S. State Department’s J-1 “cultural exchange” program.  They were expecting to come to the United States to experience cultural exchange and decent work that would at least let them earn back the fees. Instead, the student guestworkers experienced wage theft, sub-minimum wage pay, overpriced substandard housing, and intimidation and retaliation in response to their complaints.

Photo credit: National Guestworker Alliance
Sound familiar?  This wouldn’t be the first time employers have turned to the J-1 Visa as a source of cheap, exploitable workers.  And it’s probably not going to be the last, given the U.S. State Department’s continuing failure to prevent abuses in the J-1 visa program.  After a similar walkout by student workers in August 2011 — that time from a Hershey’s Co. distribution center –which received extensive coverage in the New York Times, the State Department finally undertook to revise the embattled J-1 program.  Yet, as the McDonalds incident demonstrates, clearly the State Department did not do enough.

As this excellent report by Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute — entitled Guestworker Diplomacy — detailed, the J-1 Visa Program has deviated far from what it was originally intended to do: from a State Department program to facilitate exchanges of scientific and cultural knowledge to what is now the largest U.S. guestworker program.  J-1 visa holders from all over the world are now working in the United States as laborers on dairy farms, hotel maids, ride operators at amusement parks, and au pairs, among other semi- or unskilled occupations.  Employers have every incentive to employ J-1 workers instead of U.S. workers, or even other guest workers who hold H visas.  J-1 employers don’t have to pay prevailing wage, are exempt from Social Security, Medicare, federal and state unemployment takes.  Nor do J-1 employers –unlike other guestworker employers — have to demonstrate that hiring the worker would not displace a U.S. worker.   And best of all, J-1 employers get a free pass from meaningful labor scrutiny.  The State Department has outsourced its oversight functions to the program sponsors (the companies that recruit the workers for the J-1 employers), who are expected to monitor themselves and report any regulatory violations back to a grossly understaffed compliance office at the State Department.

Try as it did with its post-Hershey reforms, the State Department has been unable to paper over the fundamental problem with the J-1 Program: it’s a labor program masquerading as cultural exchange.  And as the State Department Inspector General concluded a year ago — it probably ought to be moved to the Labor Department and subjected to the same standards and oversight as other U.S. guestworker programs.  Given the strength of the J-1 lobby, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon, however.

So what to do in the meantime?  Support the work of organizations like the National Guestworker Alliance, which organized the student walkouts at McDonalds and at Hershey’s.  And support passage of the Power Act to enable migrant workers to expose such abuses without fear of retaliation. 

Related posts:

  1. Trafficked Victims or Labor Migrants? The Indentured Mobility of Filipina Hostess Workers in Japan – Kimberly Kay Hoang reviews Rhacel Parrenas’ new book: Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo
  2. Middle East Program & United States Studies Occasional Paper Series: Rethinking Human Trafficking
  3. The indentured mobility of migrant women: How gendered protectionist laws lead Filipina hostesses to forced sexual labor by Rhacel Parrenas
  4. Achieving Accountability for Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse by Janie Chuang
  5. Ending Forced Labor by Securing Immigrant Workers’ Rights by Denise Brennan