International News

Florida Companies Among the Top Users of Murky Work-Travel Program

Disney hired more Summer Work Travel workers in 2015 than any other company in the United States. It used the so-called cultural exchange program to pay out less in wages and health benefits.
Disney hired more Summer Work Travel workers in 2015 than any other company in the United States. It used the so-called cultural exchange program to pay out less in wages and health benefits. Photo by Travis Wise / Flickr
During the summer of 2011, two college students from Kazakhstan packed their bags and flew to South Florida as part of a special work-travel program set up by the U.S. State Department to foster cultural exchange between countries. The students, both female, had responded to an ad for administrative work at Janardana's Yoga & Wellness Studio in Miami Beach. The pay wasn't great, considering the large fees they had to cover to enroll in the program and get their visas, and the hours were demanding, but at least they'd be living in paradise.

But soon after arriving, they discovered there was no yoga studio. Instead, Miami resident Jeffrey Jason Cooper, who placed the work ad with a recruitment agency, told the young women they would have to become sex workers at his waterfront massage parlor. Without legal recourse in a foreign country, the students were forced to work as prostitutes and hand over their earnings to Cooper for weeks before federal law enforcement agents caught up with the sex-trafficking scheme.

Cooper got 30 years in prison for his role in the scheme, but the State Department's exchange program remained largely unaltered after the incident — and that's a problem. A new report by the International Labor Rights Working Group (LRWG) highlights the scope of inadequate regulations and limited enforcement in Summer Work Travel (SWT) under the J-1 Summer Work Travel program. Cooper's sex-trafficking scheme was a nightmare scenario as far as SWT stays go, but the status quo is still far from a dream for most workers.

The report, which analyzed mountains of SWT program data obtained through public records requests, shows that program participants routinely complain about deplorable working and living conditions. They also allege that their employers often misrepresent the kind of work they'll be doing and frequently lie about pay and benefits. In states such as Florida and South Carolina, abuse and exploitation under the program have grown so severe that local law enforcement agencies have begun holding meetings and conducting outreach to inform SWT workers about their rights. In 2018, Florida ranked sixth among states bringing in SWT workers, receiving nearly 5,690 participants. Only Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, Colorado, and California brought in more that year.

Had the college students from Kazakhstan wanted to fight Cooper, they would have had limited options due to their status as SWT workers. SWT participants depend on their employers for their legal status in the country, as well as the money they need to survive. After paying hefty fees for their visas and travel expenses, few SWT participants, if any, have enough money to pay for a lawyer to help them lodge a legal complaint against a bad employer. SWT workers are also not eligible for federally funded legal services that help cover the cost of a lawsuit.

Summer Work Travel is the largest of nearly 15 cultural exchange programs directed by the State Department. In 2015, about 95,000 SWT participants traveled to the United States from more than 140 countries, with the largest number coming from Ireland, Bulgaria, China, Romania, and Ukraine. More than half of SWT participants are women, and the average age of a participant is 21.

What was originally created during the Cold War as a program for foreign college students to become familiar with U.S. culture while working on the side has been morphed by large companies into a funnel for cheap, exploitable labor. In 2015, nearly 16,000 companies benefited from the SWT program. Big-name corporations such as Disney, Six Flags, and McDonald's seemingly hire as many SWT workers as possible, and it's not hard to see why. The SWT program and other exchange programs, as currently structured, create serious incentives for companies to skip over hiring local workers and, as a result, lower labor standards and dilute union strength.

For example, take Disney, which hired more SWT workers in 2015 than any other company. A 2011 study by University of Oklahoma professor Kit Johnson showed that Disney's use of the State Department's various exchange programs, including SWT, saved it $15 million per year in wages because the international students are not covered by collective bargaining agreements. (The real number is likely higher, given that the estimate didn't factor how much Disney saved by not paying into pension plans or health benefits.) In the case of SWT, companies have largely squeezed the "cultural exchange" component out of the program, leaving just a cheap work program.

"In 2018, workers at Disney fought for and won a great contract with big wage increases. Before that, many had been homeless, having to work multiple jobs, or go to food pantries to survive as the cost of living went up and up in Orlando," President of the Central Florida AFL-CIO and Unite Here Local 362, Eric Clinton, told the report's authors. "So we know what it's like for many of the visa workers at Disney who aren't protected by a union contract."

The State Department refuses to admit the SWT program is effectively functioning as a work program — and that has far-reaching implications for the safety of SWT workers. According to the LRWG report, the State Department does not enforce labor laws against companies hiring SWT workers or directly regulate them. Instead of governmental oversight, sponsor organizations that work to pair applicants with companies are charged with complete responsibility for the safety and well-being of summer workers. Not only do these placement organizations directly profit from workers being placed with companies, but also they are not required to be experts in labor laws. Plus, sponsor organizations are frequently accused of charging steep recruitment fees from SWT applicants.

The report's authors recommend various policy solutions to help fix the SWT program, including increasing protections for J-1 workers, creating stronger mechanisms for enforcement in the case of bad employers, providing aggrieved workers with security when their rights are violated, and adding more transparency to the program.

The public has never had access to the names and locations of companies hiring SWT workers because the State Department has chosen not to publish that information. It was only through countless FOIA requests and news articles that the report's authors were able to shine a light on the seedy underbelly of this so-called cultural exchange program. 
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.