Press Releases | Immigration

News from EPI New report reveals the employers using the State Department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel Program: Non-public data show program can be used as a source of cheap, exploitable labor

Today the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG)—a coalition of organizations committed to ending the systemic abuses of workers who are recruited to the United States and improving labor standards for all workers—released a report offering the first-ever data-informed picture of employment realities in the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program (SWT). This is the largest of the Department of State’s (DOS) international exchange programs that authorize temporary employment in the United States.

The report, Shining a Light on Summer Work: A First Look at the Employers Using the J-1 Summer Work Travel Visa, analyzes data collected through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and presents findings about the industries and 16,000 companies using the J-1 SWT program and highlights the vulnerabilities that 100,000 young migrant workers face each year while employed through SWT. The report discusses the systemic inadequacies and lack of oversight inherent in the program’s framework that uses private organizations as recruiters and de facto managers of the program. In the report, the ILRWG urges lawmakers to reform a J-1 SWT program that is in dire need of new measures that will protect internationally recruited workers.

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program was created by the DOS in 1961 to enhance diplomacy and foster cultural exchange—unquestionably a noble goal—but now consists of 14 different programs. In 2015, 16,000 companies, including large corporations like McDonald’s, Disney, and Food Lion, hired 95,000 J-1 SWT workers. Summer Work Travel (SWT) is the largest of these and has morphed into a source of cheap and exploitable labor with little opportunity for cultural exchange.

“International exchange programs like those for Fulbright Scholars are vital to fostering understanding across borders and cultures,” said Daniel Costa, the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. “But J-1 Summer Work Travel is a low-wage temporary work program with few rules, little oversight, and disguised as a cultural exchange—a pseudo-diplomacy via guestworkers where young college students from abroad are labeled “participants” instead of employees—while working full-time jobs without the basic labor protections afforded to other migrant workers.“

Because DOS primarily has a mission to conduct foreign affairs, it lacks expertise in protecting labor standards for migrant workers and is therefore unfit to address violations under the SWT program. In addition to leaving J-1 workers vulnerable, advocacy efforts to protect workers are undermined because of DOS’s lack of transparency about the employers that hire J-1 SWT workers and the occupations, wages, and working conditions they offer J-1 SWT workers. The severe lack of transparency in the SWT program prevents an informed public debate and hinders efforts to achieve key reforms.

Wage theft, retaliation, physical threats, and human trafficking are among the countless abuses of J-1 workers documented in news reports and litigation over the years. Between 2015 and 2017, there were 67 J-1 visa holders who reported to the national human trafficking hotline that they were victims of trafficking.

The ILRWG analysis of this critical new data set makes clear that SWT is a work program—and not simply a cultural exchange program with “participants”—and needs to be regulated as one. Employers are using the SWT program to supplement their workforce while simultaneously recruiting and hiring workers in other visa programs—some of which have annual numerical limits—like the H-2B temporary work visa program for non-agricultural jobs.

The report recommends specific policies and reforms that would restore integrity to the SWT program and help protect workers in affected industries and communities:

  • Require that the program fulfill its original mission of cultural exchange
  • Guarantee that J-1 workers have robust labor and employment protections and that the program does not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers
  • Regulate the recruitment of J-1 workers to protect against fraud, discrimination, and human trafficking
  • Provide J-1 workers effective mechanisms for legal recourse when their rights are violated
  • Make information about the J-1 program publicly available and easily accessible to stakeholders and the public

Daniel Costa will be joining a press call on J-1 visas today at 10 a.m. Eastern. Please RSVP to

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