Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Working in Yellowstone?

We encountered many students working at YNP and GTNP while we were there. I was also surprised to see many foreign students - including Malaysians (!) at GTNP at the cafeteria in Colter Bay. There were also many of them at the gift shops and I wondered if they came from their country or whether they were already in the US studying at colleges and were working at the park during the summer. It’s a shame that I didn’t find out about these opportunities while I was a student. I would probably have enjoyed it a lot - especially if Xanterra or GTLC were providing lodging.

Unfortunately, these idyllic thoughts were punctured by a recent news item I came across:

Hundreds of foreign students on a State Department cultural exchange visa program walked off their factory jobs in protest on Wednesday.

The J-1 visa program brings foreign students to the country to work for two months and learn English, and was designed in part to fill seasonal tourism jobs at resorts and seaside towns. The 400 students employed at a Pennsylvania factory that packages Hershey's candies told The New York Times that even though they make $8.35 an hour, their rent and program fees are deducted from their paychecks, leaving them with less money than they spent to get the visas and travel to the country in the first place.

Some of the students were assigned night shifts, and said they were pressured to work faster and faster on the factory lines.

Hershey's said they didn't hire the students when the Times asked:

A spokesman for Hershey's, Kirk Saville, said the chocolate company did not directly operate the Palmyra packing plant, which is managed by a company called Exel. A spokeswoman for Exel said it had found the student workers through another staffing company.

Last December, the AP revealed that federal immigration officials were investigating two human-trafficking abuse cases related to J-1 visas. Strip clubs openly solicited J-1 visa holders in job listings, and some foreign students told the AP they were forced into sexual slavery when their passports were confiscated by a ring of criminals. About 150,000 J-1 visas were given out in 2008. Businesses save about 8 percent by using a foreign worker because of Social Security and other taxes they do not have to pay.

The NYT article goes further to state that the State Department has a program in place for bringing in “cultural exchange students” from abroad:

Each summer, the State Department brings many thousands of foreign students to the United States on the international work-travel program, with visas that are known as J-1. Over the years, the program has successfully given university students from distant countries a chance to be immersed in everyday America and to make lasting friends.

But in recent years, the program has drawn complaints from students about low wages and unexpectedly difficult work conditions. It appears, however, that the walkout at the Palmyra plant is the first time that foreign students have engaged in a strike to protest their employment.

The students said they mainly placed blame on the organization that manages the J-1 visa program for the State Department, the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A., which is based in California.

There is a dissonance between the current high unemployment rate and the fact that this program is allowed to exist in light of it. I can understand it when the economy is good and jobs openings such as seasonal work are hard to fill but ...

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