The State Department clamped down further Monday on a program that enables foreign students to visit the United States for up to four months of work and travel, but that has prompted allegations of abusive practices by employers such as Hershey Co.
The department imposed new rules in July aimed at strengthening oversight of the Summer Work Travel program and its special J-1 visa, which are intended to boost cross-cultural understanding but have been criticized as largely providing cheap foreign labor. The rules followed a report by the Associated Press of widespread abuses in the program, which is expected to draw more than 100,000 students to the United States this year, often for jobs at resorts and restaurants.
Controversy erupted in Philadelphia in August as dozens of visiting students assigned to a Hershey candy warehouse in Lebanon County, Pa., carried placards protesting the program. They said that they were paid low wages for hard physical labor and that their pay was drained by deductions for rent, leaving them little time or money to learn about American culture - the main reason they had paid thousands of dollars to participate in the program.
Some Summer Work Travel participants have earned as little as $1 an hour, the AP said, and have wound up in homeless shelters during their U.S. stays.
After the Hershey workers' protest, the U.S. Labor Department said it had opened two investigations into conditions at the company's warehouse: one by the Wage and Hour Division, the other by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In a public notice Monday, the State Department said it was taking further steps now because "the number of program complaints received this year continues to remain unacceptably high." Complaints include improper work placements, fraudulent job offers, job cancellations, inappropriate work hours, and problems regarding housing and transportation.
The department said it would freeze sponsors' participation at 2011 levels and not consider new applications from sponsor organizations that serve as intermediaries between students and prospective employers. More than 50 organizations, such as the Council for Educational Travel, serve as sponsors of the program, acting as intermediaries to businesses or outsourcing companies that place foreign students in jobs.