Living the American Nightmare

With applications for 2012 J1 Visas recently opening, Nicholas Lawrie explores some potential pitfalls facing Irish students.

New York. Chicago. Los Angeles. As students approach the end of the year, many are planning their upcoming summers and the exciting experiences which will no doubt be had on a J1 trip to America. Talk to any student who has done a J1 and you'll hear tales of good times. These adventures often include stories of Irish students getting a tad too excited. On the low end of things, anecdotes include excessive partying; on the higher end, examples of more anti-social behaviour and aggressive activities which placed students in risky situations.“There were issues this year of students putting stickers onto their passports,” according to Sheila Daly of USIT Dublin. “Somebody had a little enterprise going where they were selling stickers, a laminate, so students gave a copy of their passport and they took copies of it and changed the date of birth and made a sticker that went over the bio page which looked extremely real but in some cases police found out, it got leaked and certain bouncers and pubs and clubs found out. If you lifted the passport to the light, you can see the hologram with the passport, and with these you couldn't so they were confiscating passports,” added Daly. Illegal? Definitely. Brilliant? Maybe. Certainly this trick is not to be recommended. However, more and more reports emerging from the United States indicate that it is not only students who may be attempting to work around the law.This past year 400 students believed that they would be working for a major American producer of chocolate, Hershey's, America’s answer to Cadbury's or Nestle. However, they soon found themselves as employees of the temporary staffing agency SHS, contracted through a company called Exel on behalf of Hershey's, working incredibly long hours under extremely physically taxing conditions in a chocolate packing factory.Stephen Boykewich represents an American organisation called the National Guestworkers Alliance, which assists foreign guestworkers. The organisation was founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when many guestworkers were recruited to assist in the rebuilding of New Orleans.“These students were forced to work at extraordinary rates of productivity - 120%, 125% of plant capacity. In the process, they were suffering a whole huge range of physical ailments, from chronic fatigue to shooting pains, bruises up and down their arms and legs, they were doing heavy repetitive lifting for eight hours at a time, unable to sleep, and any concerns they raised were met with threats of retaliation or deportation,” said Boykewich.“The most important thing to understand is that the J1 visa program is not a guestworker visa program. It was not created to be a guestworker program, it's not administrated by the Department of Labor, but by the Department of State, and of course on the face of it, it makes no sense that the Department of State would be administering a guestworker program. It's not equipped to, it shouldn't be able to. The J1 program was founded in 1961, where by providing opportunities for cultural exchange, it promised young people from other countries the opportunity to come to the United States and meet Americans and return to their home countries as cultural ambassadors. What has happened over the last decade is that the J1 program has been exploited by US employers of all kinds to turn it from a cultural exchange program into the largest unregulated guestworker program in America.”These students eventually spoke out about the abuses that they faced, which led to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton issuing a moratorium on applications of new employers to be recognised as eligible J1 employers while internal reviews of the program were conducted. In a press release, Saket Soni, the Executive Director of the National Guestworker Alliance, stated that “we can see from State’s decision that they found serious problems with the J1 visa program, which has effectively become the largest unregulated guestworker program in America. The deception, exploitation, and threats that the 400 student workers at the Hershey’s packing plant faced aren’t the exception in the J1 program; they’re the rule.Susie McEvoy, 4th year International Social Science, participated in the J1 program last summer in Montauk, New York. “I ended up getting a job in a market, a shop, sort of the equivalent to Donnybrook Fair. I was doing seven o'clock to seven o'clock ... working sixty hours a week. I was making rent, but that was about it, I'd have little money left over.”Other students faced similar difficulties. 4th year Law student Jane McCann worked in Wildwood, New Jersey at a company which provided dolphin and whale-watching tours and explained that she “worked for twenty-eight days straight, seven until seven.” Clare Nagle, 4th year Business and Law, also worked with McCann. Nagle worked an “average of seventy hours per week ... there were a couple of weeks in the beginning where it was slower, and then in the middle of the season, it was seventy-hour weeks.”Certainly there is nothing wrong with a strong work ethic and being able to work long weekly hours. However, a major part of the issue is that under American labour law, any hours worked by any worker which exceed eight hours a day and forty hours a week require the employer to pay overtime. Yet in the case of Nagle and McCann, no overtime was paid, and in the case of McEvoy, she was paid overtime pay in cash. This allowed the employer to not pay taxes on the overtime pay; thus, the employers were able to skirt the law and exploit their labour. Additionally, they were often paid their basic wage in cash and the fact that the employers had them work these hours also put the full-time American workers at a disadvantage.“They did it in a way that they'd pay us overtime in cash because they didn't want to pay tax on our overtime. Which was fine for me, but then they close for three or four months of the year and the full-time workers get half the unemployment benefits that they would be getting if everything was done above board because the government thinks they are working only half the hours that they are. For me, it didn't make much of a difference, because I get it in cash. But for full-time workers, it was a big issue,” said McEvoy. “They have such a huge amount of people coming over that they know they can replace us. My employer told me that ‘when Irish people were poor, they'd do whatever we asked them to. Now you're more picky’.”Attempts to take advantage of students is not limited to the workplace; many landlords are also increasingly doing so, either packing students into places or offering rentals which tenants would not normally accept. “The house was disgusting, it was an absolute kip. We didn't have hot water for a month and I'm pretty sure it had black mould as well,” Nagle said. McEvoy describes her living situation: “We had people in our living room. We had a pull-out couch that we had at least two people in the living room, if not three people. We had another two or three people in the garage. We had another four people in my bedroom, three people in another, three people in another...the landlord collected $800 a month from each of us, and there were thirteen of us in a three bedroom house.”Still, the J1 program provides excellent opportunities for many and, when asked if she would participate in it again, McEvoy said, “I would do it again, no questions asked. It was one of the best summers ever.” Nagle also stated that she would also go again, but offered advice to students. “We didn't have enough time off work to travel. If I was going again I'd work less, have more fun, and go travelling at the end so I could get the fun out of the place where I was. If you're going with your friends, get jobs in different places because if not, it's really difficult to do anything because on your day off there's no one else off. Be careful of your housing. They think because you're a) under twenty-five, b) Irish, and c) on your J1 that you don't care about what you live in.”Both Daly and Boykewich stressed the importance of researching accommodation and employers before travelling to America. “We advise everybody to do research before they go. It's the biggest thing. We recommend certain websites where people can find work or accommodation but we always advise people, for example Craigslist ... you'll find that there are thousands of legitimate employers and people renting accommodation on there, but you get the people who are dodgy as well,” Daly said.Boykewich added, “Do the research. Understand every single point of whatever job offer, whatever documentation you are given. Very often, students are given job offers that will sketch out situations including some of the numbers but then are told a very different story by the sponsors. You want to be very, very clear what your economic reality is going to be and ask sponsors all the hard questions, things that are not laid out in the contract.”A summer trip to America on a J1 can be a fantastic experience but make sure that you are well-organised in order to not be taken advantage of. Daly added a final note for UCD students considering a J1. “Not everybody has the best experience, some people can go out with unrealistic expectations, but for the most part we do a survey every year and 99.9% of people have the most amazing summer of their lives. Personally I had a green card, I got one of those Donnelly visas years ago so I went off to the States and did my time over there. It's a rite of passage, it's an amazing experience.  Literally, you grow up, you learn about the big bad world. And it's great to have on a CV.”