Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, a workers advocacy group, said the changes vindicate the 400 students who protested against conditions at the candy factory and the changes are a step in the right direction.
"Businesses have grown used to a profit formula based on shifting the nature of work in the U.S. from permanent to temporary, from stable to precarious. Increasingly, they do that by eroding wages and conditions for U.S. workers, and treating guestworkers, including cultural exchange students, as the ultimate source of cheap, exploitable labor," Soni said.
Some of the new rules are aimed at the 49 companies the State Department designates as official "sponsors," whose job is to help the students obtain visas and other documents, find jobs and housing, and make sure the participants are treated properly. The new rules prohibit sponsors from paying host employers to accept participants and require them to provide itemized lists of all student fees.
"A core presumption underlies the Department's renewed focus on the cultural component of the Summer Work Travel Program," the State Department said, adding that only sponsors who can show their students are being exposed to the culture outside of work will be given the two-year contracts that are issued.
Daniel Costa, an immigration policy lawyer for the Economic Policy Institute who has studied the program extensively, said there are positive changes, like the rule that prohibits staffing agencies from subcontracting workers to other companies, but he said there's more work to do.
"I think it would have been better to use stronger language and explicitly state that sponsors should be prohibited from forcing a J-1 worker to remain on a job if they have legitimate complaints, or from threatening the J-1 with program termination if they don't remain on the job," he said. "That seems to be a common issue."
He also said the State Department should keep a black list of "bad actor employers" and prohibit sponsors from working with them.
"Just hoping that employers will 'cooperate' and having no sanctions available if they don't, allows employers to act with impunity and to hop from sponsor to sponsor if they act illegally. This keeps in place the incentive for sponsors to cover-up the bad acts of employers because the sponsor is the only one that will actually get in trouble by sanctions."
In a previous round of changes, the State Department said it had temporarily stopped accepting any new sponsors and limited the number of future participants to about 109,000 students annually. The program peaked with about 153,000 participants in 2008.
The number of participants should be lower and tied to the unemployment rate in the U.S., Costa said.
There also are three new rules meant to protect American workers, including prohibiting from the program companies that have had layoffs in the previous 120 days or whose workers are on strike.
The State Department says it wants to ensure the jobs are really seasonal or temporary and won't displace U.S. workers.
The program requires participants to come to the U.S. during their summer breaks, which fall at different times in different parts of the world. In the past, that had allowed companies to fill what were actually permanent jobs with a series of student workers.
Businesses that hire a foreign student over an American can save 8 percent because they don't have to pay Medicare, Social Security and unemployment taxes. Also, the foreigners must have their own health insurance.
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