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‘We Were Treated Like Dirt’: A Visa Program Exploits Student Workers

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The foreign students came for a summer of adventure, invited to the United States for a “work experience” program, but many did not get the cultural exposure they were expecting. Instead, they saw a grimmer side of American industry: abuse, fraud, and discrimination.

The Summer Work Travel (SWT) program is a short-term labor scheme for foreign students enrolled in a college or university outside the United States. It’s the largest job program administered by the State Department through the J-1 visa, and is marketed as a way for students to “to share their culture and ideas with people of the United States through temporary work and travel opportunities.” And each summer, more than 100,000 of these student workers arrive, prematched with a certified employer, to improve their English, explore life in the States, or just make some quick cash.

Yet, according to an investigation published by the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG), a coalition of unions and rights groups, companies often see J-1 workers as a cheap, easily exploitable source of labor. Because J-1 workers are considered part of an “international exchange,” employers can skirt regulations like health and safety protections, Social Security, and health care benefits, and even the minimum wage. The biggest beneficiaries of this scheme are giant American corporations like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Disney.

Oliver Benzon, 24, traveled from the Dominican Republic to Ocean City, Maryland, in 2015, expecting to be set up with a restaurant job. But when he arrived, he realized he would be tasked with setting up the restaurant itself.

“We went to the restaurant, and then we see that it’s under construction,” Benzon recalled, speaking by phone from the Dominican Republic. “We said, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be very, very hard.’”

Benzon, who had planned to work as a cook, ended up spending the first part of his “experience” hauling kitchen equipment, even though SWT participants are not supposed to perform such tasks because of safety concerns. Eventually, he said, he did work in the restaurant, but had to face bullying treatment and abusive language from his boss. He recalled, “We were treated like dirt because our supervisors knew we couldn’t complain.”

In addition to the hostile workplace, he said, he and all the other black and Latinx workers were forced into low-wage “back of the house” jobs, while their white coworkers filled server positions that came with better pay and tips. Even then, he said he was paid just a fraction of what he was owed, after spending thousands in fees for the privilege of working there.

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Thanks !

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