Today marks an important milestone in the effort to reform the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program, the country’s largest temporary foreign worker program. The New York Times reports that the State Department will ban the Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA)—one of the program’s largest, most profitable labor recruiters and “sponsors” of J-1 exchange visitor visas—from participating in the SWT program because of its multiple violations of labor and employment laws and program regulations, some of which are still under investigation. CETUSA’s improper actions were publicized to the world when hundreds of J-1 student-workers went on strike at a plant owned by the Hershey Company in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, to protest unsafe working conditions as well as low pay caused by unjustified and exorbitant deductions for rent and other expenses.
Along with a number of immigrant and worker advocates, last month we called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take this action because CETUSA and its subcontractors had improperly overworked and underpaid the student workers, and had threatened them with deportation if they complained about poor wages and working conditions or organized with other workers to improve their situation.
We salute the J-1 student-workers for their strength and bravery in taking this action in the face of threats of retaliation by CETUSA and their employers. We also thank and applaud the National Guestworker Alliance for their successful organizing efforts and zealous representation of the student-workers. Local labor unions also played an important role: Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania state federation of the AFL-CIO; Neal Bisno, president of the Healthcare Pennsylvania branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); and Kathy Jellison, president of SEIU Local 668; all deserve praise for speaking out and marching in solidarity with the J-1 student-workers. They were even arrested for their efforts.
Our research has shown that corporations and labor recruiters like CETUSA are using the J-1 visa Exchange Visitor Program—and especially the SWT program, which admitted 132,000 workers last year—to avoid hiring unemployed U.S. workers and paying state and federal payroll taxes. In Pennsylvania, a state with a 7.6 percent unemployment rate, scarce jobs in rural areas (such as Palmyra, the site of the Hershey plant) should first be offered to local unemployed workers. In addition, the use of subcontractors as a way to keep employees from unionizing should be banned. The Hershey Company has successfully used the J-1 program as a way to diminish the bargaining power of its workers. The Exchange Visitor Program was originally created more than half a century ago to facilitate cultural and educational exchanges between Americans and young people from across the globe—an undeniably noble goal—but sponsors and employers have been allowed to exploit its lax regulations to increase profits by taking advantage of vulnerable workers.
We commend Secretary Clinton for acting to prevent the exploitation of foreign student-workers. The State Department is also considering a number of additional changes to the program, and it is our hope that new program rules will include explicit and strong worker protections—foremost among which are the right to organize and a prevailing wage requirement, as well as a cap on the number of participants in the program that is tied to the national unemployment rate, and a requirement that employers first recruit unemployed U.S. workers before hiring J-1 student-workers.