Hot weather doesn't mean it's time to expand
exploitation of foreign guest workers.
Last summer's walkout by foreign students working for a Hershey chocolate subcontractor under the government's Summer Work Travel program prompted an investigation by the State Department, which is responsible for overseeing the program. Recently, the State Department issued new rules for the Summer Work Travel program, including capping it at 109,000, down from a 2008 high of 152,000. Assessing the new rules, the Economic Policy Institute's Daniel Costa and Ross Eisenbrey conclude that the rules are not perfect but are "a significant improvement and go far toward protecting the rights of U.S. and J-1 workers."
The new rules protect U.S. workers by preventing employers from using student guest workers to fill what would otherwise be permanent jobs for U.S. workers—Summer Work Travel workers can only be placed in seasonal or temporary jobs, and cannot be placed at companies that have laid off workers in the past 120 days or have workers locked out or on strike.
Participants in the SWT program, foreign students drawn to the program's claims of cultural exchange, also receive new protections, including an actual cultural exchange requirement, prohibition of students being given a wider range of hazardous jobs or those performed on overnight shifts. Staffing agencies are also prohibited from subcontracting SWT workers, protecting the students from the kind of complicated employment relationships in which multiple parties are taking a percentage out of their paychecks and everyone has plausible deniability for violations.
Despite these real advances, though, Costa and Eisenbrey call on the State Department to go further. First, capping participation at 109,000 is good, but given high unemployment in the United States, particularly among young workers, the cap should be still lower. They also call for a revised prevailing wage requirement to be strengthened, and for the State Department to claim more unambiguous jurisdiction over employers, requiring them to obey labor law or be banned from the program—a requirement that should be hard to argue with.
The Summer Work Travel program could be a good thing for America's image in the world, exposing interested young people from other countries to the best we have to offer. Instead, it has too often exposed them to the worst. These new rules are a step forward, especially if paired with heightened oversight. But Costa and Eisenbrey's suggestions for strengthening the rules still more are the most basic common sense.