WASHINGTON, June 17 – As the Senate resumes consideration of an immigration reform bill this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today proposed an amendment to stop employers from using a cultural exchange program to exploit foreign college students and take jobs away from young American workers.
The Summer Work Travel program brings as many as 109,000 foreign university students to the United States each year to work for up to four months. The so-called J-1 program lets foreign college students work in national parks and as waiters, desk clerks, lifeguards and other jobs that used to be performed by American high school and college students.
The program is intended to give students from all backgrounds a chance to see the United States first-hand on trips arranged by American sponsors that find them jobs and housing. In fact, however, employers have taken advantage of foreign students who will work for less pay and whose wages are not subject to Social Security, Medicare and other taxes that businesses would owe on U.S. workers.
“Today the J-1 program has morphed into a low-wage jobs program to allow corporations like Hershey's and McDonald's and many others to replace young American workers with cheaper labor from abroad,” Sanders said.
At a time when youth unemployment in the United States is extremely high, Sanders said young workers are eager for jobs. “Nobody can tell me that we need to bring young people from all over the world to work at entry-level jobs because there are not young Americans who want to do that job,” Sanders said. “With the unemployment rate for young people in this country being extraordinarily high, nobody with a straight face can make that claim.”
There also have been complaints about working conditions for the foreign students. Hundreds went on strike two summers ago at a Hershey’s chocolates packing plant in Pennsylvania where they worked on grueling, night-shift production lines hoisting heavy pallets of Kit-Kats candy bars. The students, who had hoped to polish their English during their summer in America, said they were separated from U.S. workers at the plant and claimed that so much was deducted from their paychecks that they couldn’t afford the program’s promised travel.
Sanders’ amendment would restore the program’s status as a genuine cultural exchange, not a jobs program.