WASHINGTON, February 8, 2012 — Every summer, thousands of foreign students arrive in the U.S. to gain linguistic and cultural experience through the J-1 program. Instead of enjoying this opportunity, many students find themselves working 14 hours a day seven days a week with meager wages for living expenses, and living in an overcrowded housing.
Last year, the U.S. Department of States tightened the regulations of the J-1 visa program to protect students from being exploited by the foreign recruitment agents. The U.S. State Department’s new regulation prevented many foreign agents from defrauding students with false promises of jobs in the U.S. in exchange of an approximately $3000 recruitment fee. However, local activists say authorities should do more to protect students from exploitation.
Mr. Gennady, a local activist in Virginia Beach, VA, says that students continue to experience exploitation despite the new regulation. Nina, a student from an Eastern European country, found a job in the U.S. offering $8.00 on hour as a lifeguard. Upon arrival, her employer placed her with 10 other students in a two-bedroom apartment. Her employer also deducted the housing cost from the first six weeks of her salary, leaving her with virtually no income. For the first six weeks, Nina lived near starvation because she has no money to buy food.
Other students share stories similar to Nina’s. Mr. Gennady recalls another case of a student from Kazakhstan, Silvia. Silvia worked days and nights including weekends. But, her employer threatened to fire her when she asked for a day off for feeling ill.
Students regularly live in overcrowded and deplorable housing conditions. According to another activist, 80 -90% of students he encountered lived in one or two bedroom apartment with 15 people . Some students live in apartments without air conditioning, suffering temperatures of over 100 degrees. Meanwhile, the landlords profit twice or three times more by taking advantage of these students. Each student pay a minimum of $300 for living with 14 other people in a squalid apartment.
Students who can’t afford the $300 housing fee face even worse conditions. These students sleep on the street, with no shelter. Some activist also witnessed students scrapping through the garbage for food because their meager wages leave them with no money for grocery.
In other cases, students do not receive any wages for their work. One Mongolian student did not receive any wages from his employer after working at a farm in North Carolina for a few weeks during the summer. As with other students in similar situations, he was unable to leave that position because most jobs are filled for the season. Lack of options leave many students with a little to no room for negotiations.
Some experts worry that without further supervision, the J-1 program may end up being like the technical internship program in Japan, which caused many labor trafficking cases. In 2009, 27 foreign workers died during their technical internship training regulated by the government in Japan. They were working 100 hours of overtime on top of 350 regular working hours per month. On average, they worked 16 hours a day. The Telegraph reports that some workers committed suicide. Others died from heart failure caused by overwork.
This year, Richard Rash, a retired Air force colonel, and Kathy Hardison, the director of Global Friendship House, are forming local church alliances to protect students from exploitation in Virginia Beach, VA. They hope that local authorities and residents will join their cause so that the students will have somewhere to turn.
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