J-1 exchange visitors deserve labor rights and human trafficking protections

The Senate’s proposed comprehensive immigration reform legislation could bring 11 million unauthorized migrants out of the shadows and grant them equal protection under the law. That in turn would even the playing field in the labor market, improving not just the wages and working conditions of exploitable unauthorized workers, but also those of less-educated U.S. workers employed in similar occupations. Employers engaged in a race to the bottom to find the most vulnerable and exploitable workforce will find it much more difficult to get away with violations of immigration and labor laws. However, the Senate bill fails to grant adequate employment and labor law protections to the hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers—also known as guestworkers—who enter the U.S. workforce every year.

Jennifer Rosenbaum of the National Guestworker Alliance in New Orleans has a great op-ed in Roll Call that explains:

“The current Senate bill would provide one small category of guestworkers — those on the proposed W visa — whistle-blower protections and the ability to change employers without losing legal status. But the bill risks leaving hundreds of thousands of guestworkers subject to captive labor. And lobbyists are pushing to make sure that there are as many of those guestworkers as possible.”

One specific visa category where this is reportedly occurring is the J-1 “Exchange Visitor” visa. The J-1 visa, which has 16 subcategories and is managed by the State Department, is intended to facilitate cultural and educational exchanges for the more than 300,000 participants in the program every year. As EPI has shown in the past, the J-1 visa has morphed from a cultural exchange program into the largest guestworker program in the country. The Summer Work Travel, Intern, Trainee and Au Pair categories of the J-1 visa combined admit about 150,000 full-time workers every year. That’s bigger than the U.S.’s two main guestworker programs for less-educated temporary foreign workers, the H-2A and H-2B visa programs, combined, and bigger than the H-1B visa for educated workers. J-1 workers can be found working almost everywhere: in agriculture, in hotels or private homes, drug stores, amusement parks, at fast-food restaurants, summer camps, and until last year, in factories and fisheries.

Employers of J-1 workers and the State Department-approved labor recruitment firms (known as “sponsor” agencies) that connect exchange visitors with employers are arguing to keep the J-1 program unregulated and J-1 workers exempt from worker and human trafficking protections in the Senate bill. The substance of their main arguments are: (1) J-1 workers are not “workers,” they are exchange visitor “participants,” who benefit so much from getting to work in the United States and from meeting Americans that they don’t need the same legal protections against being held in debt bondage or subjected to employer and sponsor retaliation; and (2) employers are experiencing acute labor shortages and are so broke that they will go out of business if they, rather than the J-1 minimum wage workers, have to pay sponsor agencies thousands of dollars in “program” fees. (I’ll touch more on the second point in my next blog post).

The Senate bill does not radically reform or eliminate the J-1 program, or turn its management over to the Department of Labor as many believe it should in light of recent scandals. Instead, the current version of the proposed law would simply protect those J-1 exchange visitors who are recruited for jobs in the United States from being charged exorbitant fees by the sponsors and employers. They already wield enormous power over the workers by virtue of controlling their immigration status. The result of that relationship and the imposition of heavy fees on the J-1 workers can result in debt bondage, which of course, falls under the legal definition of human trafficking.

Few observers dispute that some valuable cultural exchanges occur thanks to the J-1 program, but no one can deny that serious abuses of J-1 workers have occurred at the hands of employers, sponsors, and the foreign labor recruiters they partner with. These abuses have been perpetrated even by large corporations that are household names around the world. For example, at a Hershey’s plant in Pennsylvania, J-1 workers “found themselves packing chocolates for Hershey’s under brutal conditions, living in squalid, overpriced housing and facing threats of retaliatory firing and deportation from recruiters and supervisors.” At a number of McDonald’s restaurants in Pennsylvania, J-1 workers also “faced brutal work conditions—including shifts of up to 25 hours straight with no overtime pay—as well as wage theft, inadequate housing and threats of deportation when they raised concerns.”

Employers and sponsors who urge Congress to ignore the fact that exchange visitors are full time workers and maintain the status quo in the immigration system—thus allowing abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking of young students from around the world to continue—are going too far.

Additional EPI research and commentary on the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program: