What's the deal with this visa program? In reality, it turns out to be a way to import cheap workers for the summer, on a larger scale than I realized.
According to an op-ed piece by Fordham University law professor Jennifer Gordon in the New York Times, this program
has become the country’s largest guest worker program. Its “summer work travel” component recruits well over 100,000 international students a year to do menial jobs at dairy farms, resorts and factories — a privilege for which the Hershey’s students shelled out between $3,000 and $6,000. They received $8 an hour, but after fees and deductions, including overpriced rent for crowded housing, they netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour. Hershey’s once had its own unionized workers packing its candy bars, starting at $18 to $30 an hour. Now the company outsources distribution to a non-union company that hires most of its workers from the J-1 program.Why would employers like Hershey go for such a program? Gordon writes,
the J-1 program is attractive to employers because it is uncapped and virtually unregulated; companies avoid paying Medicare, Social Security and, in many states, unemployment taxes for workers hired through the program. One sponsor authorized by the State Department even offers a “payroll taxes savings calculator” on its Web site, so potential employers can see how much they would save by hiring J-1 visa holders rather than American workers. Visa holders can be deported if they so much as complain, and cannot easily switch employers.Well, that explains it. Companies get compliant summer workers and save on payroll taxes. The sponsors and contractors who arrange it all make good money. But the young people have little or no recourse to alter their situation and are stuck here (at least for the summer). Everybody's happy, it seems, but the foreign students who were expecting cultural exchanges. And if they don't like it, they can get deported.
As Gordon points out, these students are getting a taste of today's corporate America, which relies on outsourcing and subcontracting to avoid responsibility. It turns out that they do get real cultural exchange, a real taste of real America. Unfortunately, it's a bitter taste, not all the sweetness of Hershey's chocolates they were expecting.
Students, welcome to America!