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US: Summer Work Travel report inaccurate, industry says

The Summer Work Travel program in the US for visitors on J-1 visas is exposing young workers from around the world to “unacceptable risks” including human trafficking, a report from The International Labor Recruitment Working Group claimed. But industry stakeholders have damned the report as a “poorly sourced opinion piece.”

In 2015, 56% of SWT Workers were employed in the Leisure & Hospitality industry. Photo: pexels

A 2017 report found 98% said they would recommend the program to a friend

“[Participants] often work extremely long hours and work multiple jobs”

A total of 67 J-1 visa holders reported themselves as victims of human trafficking between 2015 and 2017, which is likely to be the “tip of the iceberg” as US employers are not directly regulated under the program, ILRWG maintained.

The group described the State Department’s system for accountability as “flawed and failing”.

Detailing its recommendations, ILRWG said that more needs to be done to prevent SWT workers from being overworked, and they should be given sufficient time to engage in “meaningful cultural activities” outside of working hours.

The report commented, “Whether [the participants] have a meaningful cultural experience as a result of their “travel” is an open question”.

Anecdotally, the organisations noted that it knew SWT workers “often work extremely long hours and work multiple jobs, and sometimes even need to visit soup kitchens”.

The document also called for sponsors and employers to be required to pay J-1 SWT workers prevailing wages and respect union collective bargaining agreements, while also prohibiting workers to work in professions that are dangerous or lack cultural interaction.

Those areas included housekeeping, modelling, and janitorial services, and are occupations DOS has identified in regulations as being “frequently associated with tracking in persons”, the report stated.

Additionally, a reciprocal exchange model for US youth opportunities abroad should be explored, and the names of employers and responsible business agents banned from the program for violating labour, employment, and workplace laws should be published.

“[The report] is replete with conjecture and woefully lacking in empirical evidence”

Recruiters and designated J-1 sponsors should be prohibited from charging recruitment fees, too, the report said.

When J-1 SWT workers arrive in the US, they ought to attend orientation programs to review of employment rights under local, state, and federal law, ILRWG suggested.

And when they leave the country, they should attend an exit interview to inform annual reporting and program improvement which should not be administered by sponsors, the report explained.

However, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, Ilir Zherka, said in a statement that the report is a “poorly sourced opinion piece.”

“[The report] is replete with conjecture and woefully lacking in empirical evidence for its argument,” Zherka noted.

A 2017 review of the program “paints a different and much more accurate picture”, he said.

The review found that 91% of alumni reported being satisfied with the program; 74% said they had a higher overall regard for the US after participating; and 98% said they would recommend the program to a friend, he pointed out.

Regulatory protections for participants go beyond what is highlighted in the ILRWG report, Zherka explained.

“All host employers and job placements are thoroughly vetted; all participants must be paid the exact same wage as American co-workers; and all participants can change job placements at any time – a participant’s visa is never tied to their host employer,” he said.

“US sponsor organisations are in monthly contact with every participant, meeting in person with many through site visits.”

Exchange sponsors strive for a zero incident culture, he added.

The 67 people reporting to the anti-trafficking hotline over a three-year period represents 0.006% of almost 1 million exchange visitors, Zherka explained. “That statistic actually confirms how well the State Department regulations are protecting participants.”

The program has “bipartisan support” in Washington DC, and supports US public diplomacy efforts and economy, he concluded.

“Hundreds of thousands of students have taken part over 60 years, and our data show they have great experiences. These students would not keep coming back, nor would they recommend the program to friends, if that were not the case,” the executive director noted.

“SWT is a win-win: it supports America’s national security, foreign policy, and economy, while providing international students with life-changing exchange experiences.”

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