Com­plaints plague fed em­ploy­ment pro­gram

J-1 Sum­mer Work Travel Pro­gram lacks worker pro­tec­tions, ad­vo­cates say

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Colin Camp­bell

Oliver Ben­zon worked in a call cen­ter for six months to pay a re­cruit­ment agency $3,000 for a chance to be hired as a chef at an Ocean City restau­rant un­der a fed­eral sum­mer work pro­gram.

But when the Do­mini­can Repub­lic cit­i­zen ar­rived in Mary­land, the restau­rant hadn’t yet opened — and he and oth­ers were in­stead given work in con­struc­tion, he said. To make mat­ters worse, his su­per­vi­sor later paid Ben­zon only a per­cent­age of what he was owed, Ben­zon said. “He just said that I could take or leave the money he was of­fer­ing me,” Ben­zon said. “We were treated like dirt be­cause our su­per­vi­sors knew we couldn’t com­plain.”

Ben­zon, who de­clined to name the restau­rant be­cause of on­go­ing le­gal pro­ceed­ings, was one of the es­ti­mated 5,557 work­ers in Mary­land who par­tic­i­pated last year in the J-1 Sum­mer Work Travel Pro­gram, one of the fed­eral govern­ment’s largest cul­tural ex­change pro­grams. The pro­gram, which the fed­eral govern­ment pro­motes as a work op­por­tu­nity for for­eign stu­dents “to be ex­posed to the peo­ple and way of life in the United States,” lacks safe­guards for the work­ers and re­lies on re­cruit­ment or “spon­sor” agen­cies that profit from the pro­gram to over­see it, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional La­bor Re­cruit­ment Work­ing Group, a coali­tion seek­ing to end sys­temic abuse of work­ers re­cruited to the United States.

The pro­gram’s struc­ture, la­bor ad­vo­cates say, leaves its work­ers vul­ner­a­ble to wage theft, re­tal­i­a­tion, phys­i­cal threats and hu­man traf­fick­ing.

Mered­ith Ste­wart, se­nior su­per­vis­ing at­tor­ney at the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, is a mem­ber of the work­ing group — which has rep­re­sented thou­sands of work­ers with com­plaints. She called the ex­change ef­fort a “bro­ken pro­gram — noth­ing more than a smoke­screen for many U.S. em­ploy­ers to gain ac­cess to cheap em­ploy­ees.”

The U.S. State De­part­ment, which ad­min­is­ters the pro­gram, has a 24-hour, toll-free hot­line (866-283-9090) and email ad­dress ([email protected]) for re­ports of abuse and con­sid­ers the safety and se­cu­rity of the work­ers “our first pri­or­ity,” the agency said in a state­ment.

The State De­part­ment “has zero tol­er­ance for any abuse and mis­con­duct,” the state­ment said, and it takes se­ri­ously all re­ports about the health, safety or wel­fare of ex­change par­tic­i­pants. It said the de­part­ment mon­i­tors spon­sors’ pro­grams to en­sure they ad­here to fed­eral reg­u­la­tions. The Of­fice of Pri­vate Sec­tor Ex­change Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­sponds to in­ci­dents such as death, se­ri­ous in­jury, sex­ual abuse, arrest of a worker, or a visa holder’s in­volve­ment in a se­ri­ous crime as a vic­tim or per­pe­tra­tor.

“We ex­pect spon­sors to man­age their des­ig­nated pro­grams in a man­ner de­tailed in the fed­eral reg­u­la­tions and by sound busi­ness and eth­i­cal prac­tices,” the agency said.

Roughly 16,000 com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Dis­ney, Six Flags and McDon­ald’s, hire sum­mer work­ers through the pro­gram each year. Mary­land em­ploys one of the five largest J-1 work­forces in the coun­try. The top em­ploy­ers in the state in­clude High Sierra Pools, Food Lion, Jolly Roger Amuse­ment Park, McDon­ald’s and Seacrets Ja­maica USA in Ocean City, ac­cord­ing to the re­cruit­ment work­ing group. Mem­bers of the work­ing group in­clude Cen­tro De los Dere­chos Del Mi­grante, a Bal­ti­more-based non­profit ded­i­cated to de­fend­ing mi­grant work­ers’ rights. The ad­vo­cates say some em­ploy­ers use the pro­gram in­ter­change­ably with other sea­sonal work pro­grams, such as the H2B visas, which al­low Eastern Shore crab houses to hire crab pick­ers from Mex­ico for the sum­mer. Those visas in­clude a pre­vail­ing wage rule and other stan­dards and re­quire the em­ployer to try to hire lo­cal work­ers first. Em­ploy­ers are ex­empt from pay­ing state or fed­eral taxes on their J-1 em­ploy­ees, ad­vo­cates said.

If J-1 work­ers run into a prob­lem, they typ­i­cally are re­ferred to their spon­sor or re­cruit­ment agency, which prof­its from their place­ment in that job, cre­at­ing “an ab­surd and ob­vi­ous con­flict of in­ter­est,” said Daniel Costa, di­rec­tor of im­mi­gra­tion law and pol­icy re­search at the Eco­nomic Pol­icy In­sti­tute. Costa said the pro­gram is “fun­da­men­tally flawed.”

Shan­non Led­erer, di­rec­tor of im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy at the AFL-CIO, a na­tional fed­er­a­tion of union work­ers, said the J-1 pro­gram takes ad­van­tage of “tem­po­rary and vul­ner­a­ble work­ers” who come to the coun­try ex­pect­ing a work and cul­tural op­por­tu­nity backed by a fed­eral govern­ment pro­gram.

“It’s not OK that they don’t earn liv­ing wages; it’s not OK that they don’t have health in­surance,” Led­erer said. “It’s un­ac­cept­able to al­low this pro­gram to per­sist with­out real over­sight.”

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