J-1 visa participants treated no different than human trafficking victims

October 12, 2011 – WASHINGTON – Over 300 J-1 participants recently protested against the Hershey Company for their slave-like working conditions at a plant in Pennsylvania.

Though the students were visiting the U.S. for cultural experiences, their lives in the U.S. looked more like those of trafficking victims. Despite the deplorable conditions, the US State Department failed to protect the J-1 participants.

The J-1 visa is a cultural exchange program created during the Cold War era to give foreign students an opportunity to experience American culture. Currently, the process of J-1 program involves student employees, the American sponsors and employers, and foreign recruitment agencies under the loose supervision by the State Department.

Instead of visiting historical sites or learning the English language, many J-1 participants spend their days working and living like slaves during their visits. For instance, the 300 students who protested against Hershey’s worked long hours in a remote area, packing and lifting 50 lb boxes of chocolates and living in overcrowded rooms.

Under the regulation 22 CFR 62.10(e), sponsors are responsible for monitoring students’ welfare during their stay and are required to submit annual report the State Department. However, the annual report does nothing to protect students from exploitive employers. The State Department, which oversees the program, has no way to monitor the actions of the sponsors or to ensure accurate reporting.

According to some of the 300 students sponsored by Hershey’s, the company threatened them with deportation when they complained about overcrowded housing and exploitative work conditions.

For employers, the J-1 program offers the easiest way to hire cheap seasonal labors. Though the students have the same labor rights as those of American workers, companies often take advantage of the lax regulation by the State Department and pay the student workers $1 or $2 an hour after deducting housing, uniform, or other fees from their paychecks.

Some employers even force students into working at strip clubs. In December 2010, strip clubs in the U.S. openly solicited students on J-1 program. The students told Associated Press that criminals forced J-1 participants into sex slavery and confiscated their passports.

Other students find themselves deceived by the recruitment agencies from their own countries. Boris, a J-1 participant from Russia, paid $3000 to obtain J-1 visa to work at a bar in Virginia Beach two summers ago. The agency in Russia told Boris that it would arrange a sponsor, housing, an employer, and other necessary paper works to obtain a J-1 visa. When Boris arrived in Virginia Beach, VA, his American employer refused to offer the job to Boris, leaving him without employment or housing.  Other J-1 participants echo Boris’s story.

Many employers and sponsors have taken advantage of J-1 program and exploited foreign student participants for a long time. It’s only recent that the media shed the light on the abuse. The State Department must take steps to protect the students from these employers and sponsors, and it must do so in the near future. Otherwise, the program is only a mechanism to spread the culture of slavery and inequality in this world that this country has fought against for a long time.

Youngbee Dale is a freelance writer, researcher, and human rights advocate. You can reach her at ybdale [at] gmail.com or follow her on Twitter


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