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US tackles abuse of J1 work-travel programme

The US State Department has announced major reforms to tackle abuse of its J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program, which brings more than 100,000 international students to the US each year. Launched in 1961, the programme allows post secondary students to spend up to four months working at government-sponsored companies in the US, in a bid to foster cultural understanding – most often with positive results.

Students complained they had been exploited and had little interaction with US citizens

However, an investigation by the Associated Press in 2010 found the multimillion dollar scheme had been abused by wily employers. Some participants were found working in strip clubs, sometimes against their will; others complained they had been exploited as underpaid labour and had little interaction with US citizens or culture.

In a statement last Friday, Robin Lerner, a deputy assistant secretary for the State Department conceded there had been abuse and said: “The new reforms for the Summer Work Travel program focus on strengthening protections for the health, safety and welfare of the participants, and on bringing the programme back to its primary purpose, which is to provide a cultural experience for international students.”

Among the reforms, participants will be prohibited from working in “goods-producing” industries

Among the reforms, participants will be prohibited from working in “goods-producing” industries such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture, or jobs with primary hours between 10pm and 6am. Meanwhile, the 49 sponsor companies who participate in the programme will be unable to place students with subcontractors and must provide itemised lists of all student fees.

Daniel Costa, an immigration policy lawyer for the Economic Policy Institute welcomed some of the reforms but said more change was needed.

“I think it would have been better to use stronger language and explicitly state that sponsors should be prohibited from forcing a J-1 worker to remain on a job if they have legitimate complaints, or from threatening the J-1 with program termination if they don’t remain on the job,” he said. “That seems to be a common issue.”

Among the most reported cases of abuse of the programme, Mafia groups were found to be using fraudulent job offers to help Eastern European women come to the US to work in strip clubs, sometimes through coercion.

In another case in 2011, about 400 foreign students walked out of their jobs at a Hersey’s chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, saying they had been put to work lifting heavy boxes on a production line, many of them on a night shift. The students, who were working for a subcontractor, complained that they had been unable to practise their English or discover US culture and had been underpaid.

Mafia groups were found to be using fraudulent job offers to help Eastern European women come to the US

The reforms are the latest to be made to the programme since the exposé. The State Department has already temporarily stopped accepting new sponsors and limited the number of future participants to 109,000 a year, after demand peaked at 153,000 in 2008. Some of the new rules come into effect immediately, others from November.

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