Am I alone in wondering what is happening with the U.S. State Department's J-1 visa programs that bring young people here for cultural exchanges?
Probably not, considering the case of alleged abuses of foreign student workers by local McDonald's franchisee Andy Cheung this year, only two years after similar complaints from work-travel students at the Palmyra-area Exel warehouse where Hershey candy was packaged.
To the State Department's credit, it is investigating the most recent case (you can find worker complaints to federal agencies here at the National Guestworker Alliance's website).
"A team from the State Department went immediately to Harrisburg where they spoke with the students, visited their housing, and met with their program sponsor. We have completed our initial onsite assessment in Harrisburg, and have concluded that further investigation is needed," spokeswoman Laura Seal said in an email.
Two high-profile complaints so geographically and chronologically close together reflects poorly on our area and companies. It could reflect poorly on the State Department, too, which has to answer: How did this happen after promises of better oversight? How frequent are such complaints? What has changed to protect these young visitors to our country and prevent them falling into abusive situations?
"We recently strengthened our regulations to enhance the program's health, safety and welfare protections," Seal said. "That includes, among other things, prohibiting a number of types of jobs, vetting every job and employer, excluding overnight hours, prohibiting jobs in isolated areas, and ensuring proper housing and transportation."
The department also inspected about 650 work sites last summer and 226 sites over the winter but couldn't say what percentage of total locations those inspections accounted for due to multiple names for one location, such as "doing business as" names.
Since May 2012, the department says it's instituted multiple improvements, including:
• Expanded list of ineligible employment categories such as vehicle operators, tattooing, factory work, food processing and construction.
• Enhanced oversight and vetting of sponsors and employers by conducting intensified worksite inspections.
• Requiring all student work-travel sponsors to provide real cultural activities for all participants.
• Vetting every job and employer.
• Requiring stronger English proficiency skills of participants to engage with Americans, as well as understand their jobs, benefits, rights and responsibilities.
• Providing comprehensive orientation materials, as well as online and phone hotlines to report problems.
• Improved interagency coordination to prevent criminal abuse or misuse of the programs.
A more comprehensive outline of changes can be found on the J-1 visa Web page.
Uncovering problems requires reporting them, something students are encouraged to do, said Susan Pittman, a spokeswoman for the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the J-1 programs.
"If they feel something isn't right, then we hope they contact us right away so we can immediately investigate it," Pittman said.
Since 2011, at least three sponsor organizations — groups that bring students to the U.S. and arrange housing and work opportunities — were removed from the program, she said. The department imposed lesser sanctions on other groups, such as limiting and blocking participant recruiting. Federal agencies with enforcement powers, like the Justice and Labor departments, can further penalize groups.
The U.S. Department of Labor said its Wage and Hours division is investigating the latest complaints but doesn't comment on open investigations. If the Exel case from two years ago is any indication, Cheung could face large fines.
The sponsor, GeoVisions, could lose access to the J-1 programs if the State Department finds they were negligent in vetting student placement.
The programs elicit overall positive responses but also are in need of improvement.
"I would note that in surveys that are given to the participants of the program, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response of 93 percent," Pittman said. "Of course, that it is not 100 percent gives us some concern as the program is intended to expose participants to the best of American experience and culture."
If we can't introduce our guests to the best of corporate America, that sets us all back through guilt by association.
Jim T. Ryan covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, transportation and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter, @JimTRyanCPBJ.
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