Foreign Student Work Exchange Program Faces Overhaul

State Department proposes changes to increase oversight and interaction

By Roy Maurer Jan 17, 2017
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The U.S. Department of State has issued a proposed rule amending the labor requirements for foreign students working in the U.S. on cultural exchange visas.

The regulations modify various aspects of the department's Summer Work Travel program, which has been under review since 2010.

The program is one of the most popular cultural exchange opportunities for foreign college and university students to use to visit and work in the United States during breaks from school, according to the State Department. Approximately 1 million foreign students have taken part in the program over the past 10 years.

But the program has also been criticized as a source of cheap labor leading to exploitative working conditions. The most publicized example of this occurred at a Palmyra, Pa., Hershey Co. packing plant in 2011 when hundreds of foreign student participants went on strike, claiming harsh working conditions, illegally low pay and a lack of cultural activities. The Government Accountability Office in 2015 concluded that the program needed more oversight to ensure that participants experience the cultural activities promised and are protected from labor violations.

The State Department's proposal will affect an estimated 26,000 employers—currently working with 41 designated program sponsors and 1,900 foreign and domestic third parties—hosting approximately 90,000 exchange visitors annually.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Obtaining U.S. Employment Visas]

The proposed changes include:

  • Increasing oversight of foreign students' sponsors, who are responsible for screening, selecting and placing student workers with employers; finding and approving students' housing; and monitoring students during their stay. What duties sponsors are permitted to delegate to foreign and domestic third parties has also been more strictly outlined.
  • Clarifying that student work must be seasonal and temporary in nature, require minimal training, and be interactive. Sponsors must ensure that all placements permit daily personal interaction with customers and/or American co-workers and avoid positions that provide little to no language exposure or skill acquisition, and that are inappropriate for a cultural and educational exchange program.
  • Requiring employers that either partially or wholly own the sponsor, and sponsors that wholly or partly own the employer, to divulge that relationship to the government and make available an independent entity to act as an advocate for the worker if called to do so.
  • Asking employers to commit to providing exchange student workers with no less than 32 hours and no more than 65 hours of work per week, as averaged over a two-week period, subject to flexibility to accommodate seasonal needs. Workers must be paid overtime; must be paid the highest of the federal, state or local minimum wage; and must receive benefits "commensurate with those offered to their U.S. counterparts and/or those on another class of nonimmigrant visa doing the same or similar work in the same work setting if they have similar qualifications and experience." The State Department said that it wants to regulate against employers that use foreign exchange students to undercut the wages of U.S. workers or other foreign guest workers.
  • Mandating that employers are to provide student workers all uniforms, tools, supplies and equipment needed to perform their work free of charge.
  • Putting new safeguards in place for door-to-door sales positions and banning certain types of work from the program, including employment at staffing agencies, positions with mobile carnivals or moving companies, jobs in waste management, janitorial or custodial positions, and jobs with repetitive motion or in inaccessible locations.
  • Limiting student workers' use of the program to visit and work in the U.S. to three times.

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