Stop exploiting J-1 cultural workers

 June 13, 2020

By Aleris Villegas and Lyn Neeley

Each year about 300,000 cultural exchange workers — students, scholars and professors sponsored by U.S. employers — enter the country as J-1 workers. The J-1 Visa program promises job training for students, a way to share their culture, improve their English and explore life in the U.S.

Last year, however, a study by the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, a consortium of labor advocacy groups, including the AFL-CIO and the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that businesses are exploiting vulnerable J-1 visa holders. Companies like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Stop & Shop, Hershey’s and Disney are defying minimum wage laws and charging visa holders extra fees — sometimes in the thousands of dollars. “We think those fees can really plunge people into debt and are a catalyst for trafficking and other labor abuses,” said Meredith Stewart, an author of the ILRWG study. (

The following statement was issued by Philippine J-1 workers: “The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted workers in the hospitality industry. This includes foreign hospitality workers on the J-1 visa, who have been terminated, indefinitely furloughed, or are experiencing significantly reduced hours. J-1 workers who have returned to the Philippines now find themselves deep in debt with no income to recover. The majority who remain in the U.S. are awaiting the uncertain possibility of returning to their worksites.”

Thousands of J-1 workers are being lured by false promises of “internship” and “training” programs within the hospitality industry only to find out that internship and training plans are not followed and no cultural exchange takes place. Essentially, J-1 workers are being exploited as a profitable replacement for the domestic workforce. Employers avoid the costs of recruitment fees and travel expenses by hiring J-1 workers, who shoulder these expenses. Meanwhile recruiters and visa sponsors amass profits by charging them “program fees” of up to $10,000.

J-1 workers have suffered exploitative conditions and are now without adequate income. They are buried deep in debt and isolated from their loved ones. Despite these circumstances, they continue to fight. In April, hundreds of Filipino J-1 workers from across the U.S. came together to form the J-1 Workers Network to collectively call for protection, transparency and accountability from the U.S. and Philippine governments, visa sponsors, host companies and recruitment agencies.

We are community members who stand with the J-1 Workers Network in their demands for assistance and accountability. We, too, call on the U.S. and Philippine governments, visa sponsors, host companies and recruitment agencies to immediately respond to their urgent needs.

You can help by signing the petition Support J-1 Workers across the United States Demanding Assistance and Accountability at or become a supporter of the J-1 Network: For more information go to