US exchange program needs more changes: Advocates

The State Department should add housekeepers to a list of prohibited jobs for foreign college students, an advocacy group said.

Jackson: The State Department should add housekeepers to a list of prohibited jobs for foreign college students who spend their summers in the United States as part of cultural exchange program that has left participants vulnerable to exploitation, an advocacy group said on Tuesday.

The State Department announced major changes to the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program in May and expanded a list of jobs that students should not be allowed to work. It was the latest in a series of steps to fix the program that abuses included participants working in strip clubs or living and working in conditions they compared to indentured servitude.

The program allows foreign college students to spend up to four months in the US. They are required to have jobs. The program was meant to foster cultural understanding, but it has become a multimillion-dollar international business that brings more than 100,000 students to the US each year. They often work in restaurants and resorts.

Among changes the State Department implemented was expanding a list of prohibited jobs to include manufacturing, construction and agriculture.

The program also bans participants from working in the sex industry. The State Department opened up a period for public comment on the changes.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a non-profit civil rights organisation, submitted a list of recommendations on Tuesday as part of that process, including adding housekeeping to the list of prohibited jobs.

SPLC said it has interviewed hundreds of program participants in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The organisation said that in 2011 it found students working as housekeepers at a casino in Mississippi where pay was based on how many rooms they cleaned in a day.

The SPLC said the company that arranged the students` jobs and housing charged so much for rent that one participant reported taking home USD189 for 67 hours of work less than USD 3 an hour.

In addition to banning housekeeping, SPLC urged the State Department to step up enforcement of rules to protect the participants, and ensure they aren`t displacing American workers.

In announcing the changes in May, the State Department acknowledged the work aspect of program "has too often overshadowed the core cultural component necessary for the Summer Work Travel Program to be consistent with the intent of the (1961) Fulbright-Hays Act."

The visa program is aimed at allowing students of modest means to work in seasonal or temporary jobs as a way of offsetting the costs of their travel. But some businesses have been using the students as a source of cheap labour.