If you’re visiting a beach resort or a theme park this summer, you’re bound to encounter one of the more than 100,000 young workers who arrive in the United States each year on J-1 Summer Work Travel (SWT) visas. In June, my team and I headed to the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., where we spoke with over a hundred of these young men and women.
Created by the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 as a sort of “cultural exchange,” the J-1 SWT program, overseen by the Department of State, has strayed far from its mission, the workers confirmed. It has become a source of cheap and exploitable labor.
Some workers reported needing to have more than one job at a time in order to make ends meet or having to find jobs on their own. Time to engage in cultural activities is minimal at best, and housing is inhumane; we visited a warehouse that boarded dozens of men and women at once.
Instead of exchanging their cultures, workers in the program — who did everything from cleaning hotel rooms to serving ice cream — experienced race and sex-based discrimination, misrepresentation, retaliation and stolen wages.
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Segregation happens in plain sight. Dominican men work in kitchens as cooks while Dominican women are housekeepers. White men from European countries greet guests at resorts, and their female counterparts wait tables.
Hundreds of thousands of young people have paid to work under this program. Sponsor agencies in workers’ home countries charge thousands of dollars in exchange for the promise of a cultural exchange. Workers often take loans to cover recruitment and travel fees, increasing their vulnerability to abuse. Sixty-seven J-1 visa holders self-reported to a hotline as victims of human trafficking between 2015 and 2017. Recruitment fees are not prohibited for J-1 visa holders, since these are not regulated as a guest worker program, even if it employs workers in the same industries.
My organization chairs the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG), a coalition of over 30 organizations and academics fighting to end systemic abuse of guest workers in the U.S. Our new report released last week shines light on the program for the first time since it was founded. After 500 hours of going through data compiled via Freedom of Information Act requests, we discovered striking numbers. The program has grown five times its size in the last two decades. Almost 16,000 companies have hired workers under the J-1 SWT program; Disney, McDonald’s and Holiday Inn are among the largest users of the program.
The data suggests that employers are hiring J-1 SWT workers to circumvent caps on other work visas, evade regulations on collective bargaining and avoid having to pay prevailing wages. This has a detrimental effect on the entire workforce.
When we testified at the Maryland House in support of a bill that would ban recruitment fees for all guest workers in the state, sponsor agencies resisted. The J-1 SWT lobby argued that such fees were necessary to fund the “cultural exchange.” They told us that Ocean City welcomed young students with open arms; even soup kitchens offered their services and spaces.
Let’s be clear: J-1 SWT workers go to soup kitchens because they cannot afford to buy food. It speaks less about community ties and more about the subpar labor conditions. Debt incurred during recruitment through false promises only heightens abuse for the more than 5,000 young workers who come to Maryland every year.
No one should pay to work. As a community, we can come together to give young workers the cultural exchange they deserve. By supporting legislation that protects their rights, we can truly welcome them with open arms.
Rachel Micah-Jones is executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.