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Exploitation Isn't 'Cultural Exchange' | Commentary

In a July 15 Roll Call opinion piece, “Don’t Devalue Exchange Programs in Immigration Reform,” Michael Petrucelli argues that the Senate immigration bill was wrong to include basic labor protections for the more than 100,000 student guestworkers who come to the U.S. each year through the J-1 visa program. Petrucelli argues that these workers aren’t really workers, but cultural exchange participants, and that the J-1 Exchange Visitor program isn’t really a guestworker program, but a tool of public diplomacy.

Mr. Petrucelli’s view of the program is several decades behind the times. The J-1 program was created in 1965 as a Cold War-era diplomatic tool—a way to convince young visitors from around the world of the virtues of American culture. But today’s J-1 student guestworkers know what even program staff now admit: the J-1 program has been transformed by employers into a vast, poorly regulated, low-wage temp worker program, where severe exploitation is par for the course.

That’s precisely why immigration reform needs to extend basic labor protections to future J-1 guestworkers — together with all immigrant workers.

Abuse in the J-1 program became too big to ignore in the summer of 2011, when 400 student guestworkers went on strike from the Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pa., protesting brutal conditions, sub-minimum wage pay and a complete lack of any cultural exchange. The story demonstrated how major U.S. corporations were exploiting the program as a way to undercut local workers: the positions the students filled had previously been permanent, living-wage jobs with a union contract. Then Hershey’s fired those workers and used layers of subcontractors to replace them with a year-round succession of exploitable J-1 students.

In the aftermath of the Hershey revelation, the U.S. State Department, which administers the J-1 visa program, admitted that the program was out of control:

“In the midst of unfettered program growth, ECA lost sight of the original intent of some J visa programs,” the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General wrote in February 2012. “The OIG team questions the appropriateness of allowing what are essentially work programs to masquerade as cultural exchange activities.”

The State Department made some changes to the J-1 Summer Work Travel program to try to curb employer abuse, including barring the construction, manufacturing and food processing industries from the program. Acknowledging how far the program had fallen from its original purpose, the State Department said that future job placements “must provide opportunities for participants to interact regularly with U.S. citizens and experience U.S. culture during the work portion of their programs.”

The changes didn’t go far enough. This February, another major case of J-1 program abuse emerged at McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania. Again, in place of “cultural exchange,” student guestworkers from around the world faced sub-minimum wage pay and overpriced, substandard housing. The abuse sparked a day of protest against McDonald’s labor abuse in more than 30 countries this June.

Mr. Petrucelli says that as immigration reform moves forward, “it will be important to remain mindful of those things that add value to the nation.” He’s right.

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