How a local corporation uses foreign students as a workforce
By Pete Blanchard
American college students typically associate a semester abroad with traveling to exotic locales, eating different foods and meeting new people. For some foreign students coming to the United States, the situation is quite different.
Every year, foreign exchange programs bring more than 280,000 visitors to the United States. About 90,000 of these visitors are students who come through the Summer Work Travel Program. A growing number of foreign students are traveling to the United States on this program, typically working in hotels, resorts, restaurants and casinos. Factories can now be added to that list: Marietta Corporation, a national company based in Cortland, N.Y., that supplies hotels with cleaning products, has hired the labor of at least 50 foreign exchange students.
Welcome to America
In June, Pete Meyers, coordinator of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, received a letter from a local pastor that the Holiday Inn had just hired seven foreign students from China and Moldova as housekeepers.
“When we first heard about this situation at the Holiday Inn, we were initially concerned that they were perhaps not even being paid for the position,” Meyers said.
Sarah is a Chinese pre-med student who came to America on the Summer Work Travel Program. Back in China, her parents make a modest living owning a shoe store. Here in the United States, she cleaned hotel rooms at the local Holiday Inn, making just above minimum wage and occasionally working overtime. Sarah was temporarily living at the Cortland Motel before the Holiday Inn agreed to provide rooms for her and the six other foreign students working there.
“There are students from all over the world at the motel,” she said. “They work as packers for Marietta.”
Over the summer, the Cortland Motel provided housing for about 50 international students who were working for Marietta. The housing situation was less than luxurious. There were at least four students per room, and all of the students had to share one kitchen, which was pretty decrepit. The majority of the students get to work by biking to the factory, which is located a few miles away from the motel. At Marietta, the students typically worked 12-hour shifts and made just above minimum wage. Work on the assembly line is pretty mundane, consisting of putting caps on shampoo bottles or packaging bottles into boxes.
One of those students, Muhammed, is a 20-year-old student from Uzbekistan studying finance and economics at the Tashkent Financial Institute. Like all of the other students staying at the motel, Muhammed came here with a non-immigrant J-1 Visa through a sponsor organization called Cultural Homestay International. CHI is one of many sponsor organizations that provide work opportunities for both students and employers, and the Summer Work Travel Program is just one of the exchange programs offered to international students.
Kidon Clyde, 20, is currently studying at the University of West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. Since flights from Jamaica to the continental U.S. run fairly cheap compared to international flights, Jamaican students like Clyde are able to save up money to bring back home.
“I was working at the Sagamore Resort in Lake George. … I lived there,” Clyde said. “I loved it. I am trying to make some money to go home and pay for tuition.”
Behind the Brochures
While Clyde and other Jamaican students use the Summer Work Travel Program to help pay for college tuition, the same cannot be said for other students. Dino Radulovic, a 20-year-old student from Bosnia, had a troubling experience in Atlantic City, N.J., before ending up in Cortland. While in New Jersey, he pulled people in chairs on the boardwalk for three days straight and ended up making less than minimum wage.
“People who do this job are either on crack or they’re international students,” he said. “It was a bad job. People talked shit to us. It was humiliating.”
Muhammed described an incident where he flew to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., after being promised there would be a job waiting for him there—but his employer did not accept him.
“When I came there and told him my name, he said he did not know me,” Muhammed said. “I asked him, ‘Are you joking?’”
The majority of the students came here for the experience, looking for the opportunity to work and travel in the United States, but many were lucky to break even financially. Between travel and visa expenses, the money they earn is barely enough to keep them going.
“We pay $3,000 to see America and to travel,” Muhammed said. “We come here, and we are just a little bit disappointed. This is America? It’s a little town—there’s nobody here and nothing to do. … Our program’s name is now work, sleep and cook.”
A Growing Trend
It might seem peculiar that a motel would need to provide housing for 50 international students while they package shampoo products for a national corporation, but this is quickly becoming a common scenario. Victoria Cani is a regional Employment Services Manager for CHI. Founded in 1980, CHI was set up when foreign exchange students began coming to the United States and looking for home stays. She says motels and hotels are the most common housing options for Summer Work Travel students.
“Ithaca was the most challenging area for housing,” Cani said.
Samantha Wolfe, a senior sociology student at Ithaca College, interned at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center over the summer. After spending a night at the Cortland Motel, she learned that these students working at Marietta are essentially temp workers. They are exempt from Social Security, unemployment and Medicare taxes.
“That’s tax-free labor for them, taxes that could be used to support social services for their workers that aren’t making enough to live,” Wolfe said.
International students were not greeted warmly by the rest of the community. Muhammed once read a sign on the highway nearby the motel that read, “Learn English or go home!” According to Cani, an associate at Marietta slashed the tires of one student, and several lockers were broken into. Instances like these are not uncommon among Summer Work Travel participants.
“They really attack our students sometimes,” Cani said. “Lockers being broken into happen nationwide on the program. We addressed right away the issue of slashing tires at Marietta, and the company fired the person who did it.”
As a result of these incidents, CHI has considered discontinuing its program with Marietta.
Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr teaches immigration law at Cornell University and specializes in J-1 Visa law programs like the Summer Work Travel Program.
“You’ve got thousands of employers using these particular kinds of J-1 work students,” he said. “We need more oversight by the state department as well as more supervision by the sponsoring organizations, such as the CHI.”
In 2005, the Government Accountability Office issued a report to the State Department urging stronger action to improve oversight and assess the risks of the Summer Work Travel program. The report concluded that there is a severe lack of oversight in the management of the Summer Work Travel Program, also citing the lack of data on cases of abuse during the work period.
All of the students mentioned in this story have since returned to their home countries, but Marietta is already looking for the next cycle of student workers.
“Marietta is taking spring students, too,” Cani said. “There is a rotation.”
If Marietta is capable of having a year-round student workforce, then this program is being seriously abused. With the nation’s unemployment rate hovering just below 10 percent—in Cortland it is at 7.5 percent—some local residents feel that Marietta is taking potential jobs away from Cortland citizens. For a four-month period, these students made up about half of the assembly line workers.
“This is in effect creating a permanent workforce out of these temporary student workers,” said Ron Powell, a retired labor activist from Cortland who volunteered with the Cortland Workers’ Rights Board. Powell has dealt with labor violations at Marietta for much of his career. “I would have to say that in those 12 years, we received more calls from workers at the Marietta Corporation than the next five largest employers combined.”
Carlos Gutierrez is a volunteer at the Workers’ Center who works with members of the community on immigration and local labor issues. He said these students are basically doing a job that anybody else here in the United States could do.
“Employers have to prove they need foreign workers and that there are none available in the local market,” Gutierrez said. “I understand the main principle of the program, and I think it’s under good principles, but when you have a lot of unskilled workers who would take those jobs locally, there’s conflict there.”
Benefits and Struggles
Meyers of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center said he thinks this program is catered to corporate interests rather than to the students. Many companies have come to depend on this program to stay afloat, especially casinos, hotels and resorts that rely on seasonal employment in the summer months.
Meyers said one solution is to change the conditions and social stigma of these jobs in the first place.
“If these were jobs people could take pride in, you’d have a different feeling,” he said.
This is a localized example of a much bigger issue. There have been more serious cases of abuse in bigger cities like New York and Miami, where communication between the sponsor organizations and employers is minimal at best.
Furthermore, cases of exploitation go undocumented, so there is no way of calculating how many of these 90,000 students have suffered on-the-job abuse, or how many students like Dino and Muhammed were promised a job but left to fend for themselves. Unless there is increased oversight by the State Department and sponsor organizations like the CHI, then corporations nationwide, not just Marietta, will continue to abuse this program. While Marietta has not violated any law, many people like Powell question the ethics of the program.
“When you bring these kids to work 10, 12, 14 hours a day, and you put them up in a motel where they mingle only with each other and not with members of the community, where is the cultural exchange of that program?”
Pete Blanchard is a junior journalism major who wants to study abroad in Djibouti. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.