Thousands of college-age students come to Florida every year as part of a federal cultural exchange program that has been accused of fostering abuse and exploitation, including cases of human trafficking, according to a national report released this summer.
The J-1 Summer Work Travel (SWT) program has suffered from a lack of regulation and transparency, according to the July 30 report from the International Labor Recruitment Working Group. The ILRWG, a coalition of organizations and academics that advocates for ethical international labor recruitment, includes the AFL-CIO union, Oxfam America, the National Guestworker Alliance and a University of Miami professor.
According to the group's report, at least 67 visa holders reported they were victims of human trafficking between 2015 and 2017. Further, the authors argue SWT participants' wages were too low to cover housing and other costs, forcing some workers to incur debt.
The program has been subject to allegations of abuse for years, with advocates calling for it to be regulated like a foreign labor program. In a 2011 case reported by the Miami Herald two years ago, two women students from Kazakhstan believed they would be working in a yoga studio in Miami Beach but were instead forced into sex work by their employer.
Florida hosts the fourth highest number of J-1 SWT participants in the country. Most of the workers here are employed by amusement parks Walt Disney World and Busch Gardens and grocers Publix and Winn-Dixie. The companies did not respond to multiple requests for comment from WLRN.
“In many cases, that cultural experience component that is supposed to be part of this program is not really a reality for many of the participants,” said Jeremy McLean, a co-author of the report and a policy director of Justice in Motion, a migrant labor advocacy group. He described the process of obtaining the data as “cryptic and laborious."
In 2018, nearly 104,000 students from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia came to the U.S. through the SWT visa program, created during the Cold War for the exhange of language, culture, and business practices between America and foreign nations. Students visit for no more than four months during summer breaks from their home universities.
Nearly 6,000 college-age students come to the Sunshine State annually through the program, mostly to work temporary jobs in the service and hospitality industries.
“A lot of them just come, have low-wage service jobs, are made to work a lot and don’t really have that cultural experience that this program was designed to provide," McLean said.
The Alliance for International Exchange, an association that advocates for exchange programs like the SWT and represents companies who participate in them, argued survey results from sponsor organizations say 90 percent of participants report a more positive opinion of the U.S. than they previously had.
According to the Alliance for International Exchange, one goal of the SWT program is "to fulfill short-term, high-volume needs" during peak business seasons.
Visa holders work in Florida hotels, theme parks, grocery stores
Florida data from 2015, which McLean provided to WLRN, shows that Disney employed more than 2,000 workers through the program in Orlando, Busch Gardens employed more than 600 in Tampa, and Publix and Winn-Dixie stores statewide each hired close to 300. The data set was the only one made available by the Department of State.
Kit Johnson, an associate professor of law at the University of Oklahoma, is cited in the ILRWG report as estimating that Disney saves $15 million on J-1 hires nationally because the workers are not covered by the same collective bargaining agreements as other, unionized employees.
In South Florida, the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach has hired 72 workers from Peru, the Philippines and Ecuador. Winn-Dixie stores in Big Pine Key have hired workers from Argentina, Thailand and the Phillipines, and The Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach has hired Argentine workers. These employers could not be reached after multiple requests for comment or declined to speak with WLRN.
Boucher Brothers, a hospitality management company in Miami Beach, has hired SWT participants from Latin America and Eastern Europe as pool and beach attendants during the winter and spring busy seasons.
A spokesperson for Boucher Brothers said the workers are guaranteed 32 hours of work per week, earning up to $11 an hour through a combination of minimum wage and tips, depending on the position.
Reported abuses include human trafficking
National anti-human trafficking nonprofit Polaris cited 67 J-1 visa holders that self-reported to a hotline as victims of human trafficking between 2015 and 2017, the report said. About 100,000 people participated in the program during each of those years. While that is a small proportion of the overall number of participants, advocates worry abuse is underreported.
According to McLean, processed federal human trafficking cases related to the J-1 are rare; only three have been filed. But one way to assess cases is to look at "T visas" awarded to guest workers. T visas provide victims of human trafficking a pathway to citizenship in return for participating in the investigation of the trafficking crime.
That was the path forward for Miami-Dade resident Ronny Marty, originally from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, who received a T visa after becoming a victim himself. He is now a member of the U.S. advisory council on Human Trafficking.
He had a good experience with the SWT Program in 2007, so he responded to an ad in 2009 promising work for a longer period of time in Kansas City, Mo., on an H-2B visa, a similar guest-worker program.
“It didn’t happen,” he described. “The only option they gave us is going to Huntsville, Alabama, and work for a DVD manufacturing company, and that’s where they actually took advantage of us.”
He found himself earning $7 per hour working 12-hour days while being forced to live in a one-bedroom apartment with three other Dominican men. He said they had to pay $375 each in rent.
Marty wanted to leave, but he said he and his family back home were being threatened by his employer, and the money he was making wasn’t enough to pay back what he owed to family and friends for $4,000 in travel and recruitment expenses.
He didn’t know he was a victim of trafficking until he escaped after a few months and sought help from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was able to stay in the U.S. and bring his family here after being awarded a T visa for his cooperation.
Although Marty was exploited through the H-2B guestworker program, not the J-1 SWT, he stressed that workers in both programs are vulnerable.
“[Workers] don’t know the law. They don’t know their rights," he said, "and there is [little] awareness about human trafficking."
Marty is advocating for federal legislation filed in July by U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch, both South Florida Democrats. Their bill, dubbed the Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking Act, aims to ensure data is reported for every non-immigrant visa program.
As a housekeeping director at a Hilton hotel, Marty said he now educates his employees on how to identify victims of human trafficking.
“If we have a system that we can a track where the workers are, who are the employers, how much money they’re making," Marty said. "If we can [track those things], we can help workers not become victims of human trafficking."
Cultural exchange program doesn't come free
Participation fees for J-1 SWT workers from Latin America, Asia, and Europe range from $1,000 to nearly $3,000, according to the Council on International Educational Exchange, a U.S. nonprofit promoting study abroad and exchange programs like SWT. Those costs don't include travel, cost of living or a visa interview fee.
McLean said many workers are forced to take out loans to pay for recruitment fees.
The labor group's report includes that J-1 SWT regulations do not include a clear and enforceable rule establishing the minimum wage levels that workers should be paid.
“If you are taking on debt for the job, you will be much more willing to endure horrible conditions, because you’re thinking about that debt,” McLean argued.
He suggested that taking on debt could deter employees from pushing back against employers, which means some abuse could be unreported.
Report raises questions about regulation
The report makes the case that a lack of regulation and transparency has left participants at risk of exploitation through the program, which is the largest of 14 cultural exchange programs run by the State Department.
McLean argued the program is "self-regulated" instead of being formally regulated by the government.
According to his research in the ILRWG report, "The Department of Labor has no role in the oversight or the rules, doesn’t do a lot of outreach or checking in as far as wages and other labor law violations," he said.
A State Department spokeswoman told Reuters in August that "the agency works to protect participants, monitors employment sites and looks into complaints of abuse or mistreatment."
Green Heart Exchange is a national sponsor organization for J-1 students that helps them find housing. Some students stay in hotels, sometimes for free, according to the report.
Nancy Kenyon, who oversees Green Heart Exchange's work with the SWT program, said students who are assisted by her group most commonly report issues related to their health and "getting used to American culture."
She said that the Green Heart Exchange also plays an oversight role, sending staff to mediate issues with students or working with host organizations to handle problems.
She also argued the federal government monitors the program sufficiently.
“I can tell you that the Department of State is overseeing the programs," Kenyon said.