On J-1 Visas

26 Aug

This was first published this week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In Palmyra, Penn., last week, hundreds of foreign students staged a protest, walking off their jobs at a Hershey packaging plant. They were on J-1 visas as part of a cultural exchange, whereby they worked in the U.S. for a summer, supposedly getting a chance to improve their English and to experience American culture while making a bit of money on the side to help finance the trip.

But things didn’t turn out as planned.

“There is no cultural exchange, none, none,” Zhao Huijao, a 20-year-old Chinese student, told the New York Times. “It is just work, work faster, work.”

The protest comes amidst claims from other J-1 visa holders, who claim that the J-1 visa summer exchange is just a source of cheap labor for American employers. According to The Lookout, a Yahoo News blog, employers save around 8 percent by hiring foreign workers on a J-1 visa, since they don’t have to pay Social Security and other taxes.

The students at the Hershey plant—who were being paid $8.35 an hour—claimed that despite their wages, they weren’t able to recoup even the money they had spent in visa fees. Zhao told the Times that she spent more than $6,000 to pay for her visas and to travel to the U.S. for her exchange.

The money, though, is not the real issue at stake. Sure, visas are expensive and travel isn’t cheap. That’s a given when it comes to foreign travel. That it’s difficult to work in a foreign country is true in many countries, not just the U.S. That foreign students who commit to working for a few short months would be put at minimum-wage jobs is unsurprising. Even American college students are hard-pressed to find meaningful work over their summer breaks—unless they’re willing to intern for free, or for a very low stipend wage.

What is surprising—and wrong—are the conditions of the work and the way that foreign students are lured into thinking that their manual labor jobs will leave time for any sort of significant cultural exchange when they sign up for the program.

Back in December, the Associated Press published a report after an investigation into J-1 visa abuse in South Carolina.

“Many foreign students pay recruiters to help find employment, then don’t get work or wind up making little or no money at menial jobs,” the article reads. “Labor recruiters charge students exorbitant rent for packing them into filthy, sparsely furnished apartments so crowded that some endure ‘hotbunking,’ where they sleep in shifts.”

The AP also found that some students—who thought they would be working in restaurants—ended up being forced to work in strip clubs for as little as $1 an hour, or less.

“Students routinely get threatened with deportation or eviction if they quit, or even if they just complain too loudly,” the article continued.

The plight of some J-1 visa holders in South Carolina makes the Hershey workers’ experiences seem slightly more pleasant, when you consider the $8.35 an hour wage. But students there have their own complaints—and say that the problem isn’t just the money.

Harika Duygu Ozer, a 19-year-old Turkish student, complained about eight-hour shifts that began at 11 p.m.

“You stand for the entire eight hours,” she told the Times. “It is the worst thing for your fingers and hands and your back; you are standing at an angle.” She also said that there were cameras pointed on her the entire shift, so supervisors could ensure she kept up the pace of her work, letting her know she could leave if she didn’t.

Zhao, the 20-year-old Chinese student, showed reporters bruises on her arms from the labor.

The packaging plant is not owned by Hershey, and the candy company denies any knowledge or involvement with the working conditions, which are overseen by a separate, independent organization.

But the reality of the working conditions are probably shocking for the students, many of whom are engaged in challenging studies back home and whose primary goal was to find an affordable way to explore the U.S.

Zhao, for example, studies international relations in China, and Ozer studies medicine in Istanbul.

This puts the U.S. Department of State in a tricky place: the National Guestworker Alliance, a labor organization, has asked the State Department to remove the organization responsible for placing foreign students with the Hershey factory off the list of J-1 visa sponsoring organizations, according to The Times. But how many other similar agencies are at fault for similar offenses? And is the J-1 visa summer travel visa program accurately represented abroad?

These deeper questions are equally as important as the Hershey protest last week.

The State Department has some questions to answer to protect the integrity of the J-1 visa, which is the same visa issued to incoming Fulbright grantees from countries around the world as they participate in a fully-funded, prestigious research exchange.

The J-1 summer travel visa shouldn’t be confused with State Department sponsored grants, or as providing the same level of cultural exchange by any company that the sponsors the visas.

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