The coronavirus pandemic has inspired critical discussions about which companies deserve government support and who constitutes an essential worker. Yet, there is a vital population of more than 1.6 million people who have been disregarded as a group worthy of protections: temporary foreign workers.
These workers in large part perform the types of jobs that have been deemed “essential” during this health crisis. As you read this, they are harvesting and preparing our food and providing medical care while many of us are quarantined in our homes. In normal times, temporary foreign workers and other low-wage workers provide the vital services that form the base of the global economy. In times of crisis, we must recognize how much we truly depend on these workers to meet our basic needs.
One subset of these crucial workers is J-1 visa holders working across a variety of sectors. The J-1 program was originally intended to facilitate cultural exchange, but in practice, J-1 visas are used as temporary work programs controlled by sponsor agencies who charge both visa holders and employers fees to participate. Not only have J-1 and other temporary foreign workers been left out of COVID-19 policy discussions, but a J-1 lobbying group is soliciting its own bailout. While Congress debated the specifics of its $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, a group of J-1 sponsor agencies and employers undertook lobbying efforts in Washington. A letter to legislative leaders sent by this group on March 18 detailed the economic impacts of COVID-19 on businesses that use the J-1 program, and urged legislators to remember these hardships when economic stimulus is being assigned. The letter extolls the importance of international exchange opportunities, but includes as signatories pool maintenance companies, hotels and fast food restaurants. Disturbingly, not one word of concern was expressed in the letter for the more than 300,000 J-1 visa holders who come to the U.S. every year.
J-1 workers and all temporary foreign workers are critical to the pandemic response through employment in public health, agriculture, food preparation and delivery, and cleaning and maintenance. Who is going to support them?
About a year ago, a coalition of advocates now called Migration that Works released a report on the Summer Work Travel program of the State Department-run J-1 visa. The report outlined how the program leaves participants vulnerable to numerous forms of abuse including wage theft, retaliation, physical threats and human trafficking. State Department oversight is lacking and visa-holder complaints are often channeled back to the sponsor agencies, who often opt for inaction rather than disrupt their business model. Though the Summer Work Travel program was originally structured as a creative attempt at diplomacy and international cultural exchange, many employers use it and other J-1 programs as just another source of cheap and exploitable labor.
Katarina* was one of several J-1 visa holders from the Philippines working at a hotel in a resort area when the pandemic hit. As business slowed, her hours were cut from the 32 hours per week stated in the contract to 20 hours. When the hotel closed, her employer gave her and her coworkers one week to leave the country, while her sponsor agency said their rent was paid through the end of April. Given mixed messages, they scrambled to make their own expensive, last-minute travel arrangements. They didn’t even know if they could make it home as much of the Philippines is on lockdown due to the pandemic.
“Our experience as a whole was terrible there,” she told Truthout via email. “We were overworked, understaffed. We never expected to be threatened, forced and pressured to go home and leave a place where we felt secure in a time when everything is in such disarray. We continually received conflicting information from the employer, J-1 sponsor, and J-1 agency. Fortunately, most of us arrived home safely but the feeling of betrayal still lingers.”
As businesses close and service jobs evaporate to encourage social distancing during the pandemic, many J-1 participants are being told that the exchange opportunities that they signed up for are no longer available. Where can a J-1 worker turn if they have already paid program fees to a sponsoring agency for a program that has been cancelled? How can J-1 workers sharing bunkhouses with dozens of co-workers practice social distancing? Who will pay the rent for a J-1 worker who already started working in the U.S. in the service industry but now no longer has any employment? Under the current structure, J-1 visa holders and all temporary foreign workers are seen by employers and visa-exchange middlemen as a means to an end, cheap labor needed for increased profits with no safety net. Katarina had to book three last-minute tickets to get back to the Philippines and wasn’t eligible for hazard pay. Who is looking out for workers like her?
On March 26, even though U.S. visa processing has mostly been suspended across the globe, the State Department put out a call for medical professionals to solicit J-1 visas in order to come to the U.S. and assist with the coronavirus response. Yet they did not add any new protections for these workers or provide solutions for current J-1 holders. The U.S. is far too willing to benefit from the labors of these essential workers while we ignore the abuse of their rights and their lack of protections.
Advocates have made statements and sent letters to the federal government appealing for increased protections, but more is needed. We cannot protect the nation from the coronavirus and its economic impact if we ignore the contributions made by this workforce and their unique vulnerability as temporary foreign workers. The virus and its effects do not discriminate based on immigration status, and the State Department, J-1 sponsors and J-1 employers should advocate for the rights and protections of this population.
Furthermore, effective public health measures demand equity — a plan that ignores any of us imperils all of us. Temporary foreign workers, their contributions to the economy, their concerns and the violation of their rights are normally overlooked. In these abnormal times, we continue to neglect and jeopardize the well-being of this group at our own peril.
* A pseudonym due to privacy concerns.