Honolulu Civil Beat: Cultural Exchange Program or a Ticket to Sweatshop Labor? Contrast US with J example of exploitative visa conditions


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Hi Blog. Debito.org has long complained about how NJ (especially the “Trainees” being thrust into sweatshop and slave labor) were being exploited by ill-designed and unsupervised visa statuses in Japan. Let’s take a look at the American example and do a bit of triangulating. Dr. ARUDOU, Debito


A Cultural Exchange Program or a Ticket to Sweatshop Labor?
A Japanese woman’s poor working conditions as a Waikiki pastry chef illustrate the dark side of a visa program that brings thousands of temporary foreign workers to Hawaii each year.
April 7, 2015·By Rui Kaneya


It didn’t take long for the 30-year-old Japanese pastry chef to realize that she was getting the raw end of the deal.

She had arrived in Hawaii only days before, lured by a promise of pastry training as part of a cultural exchange program run by the U.S. State Department. The terms of her stay, under a visa known as J-1, were to spend the next 18 months working in the kitchen of a Waikiki restaurant — six days a week on 8-hour shifts beginning at 6:30 a.m.

But she found herself toiling inside the kitchen in a shift that began at 5:30 a.m. and stretched to 12 hours — without any breaks or overtime pay.

In 2012, a Japanese pastry chef arrived in Hawaii on a J-1 visa, only to find herself working at a Waikiki restaurant in sweatshop conditions. She requested her name and the name of the restaurant not be used.

When she complained, she said no one lent a sympathetic ear.

Initially, she said she was told that none of the restaurants in Hawaii offered any breaks. And, if she were to work on a shorter shift, her salary would have to be reduced accordingly.

Unsatisfied, she went to her American sponsor organization and its Japanese contractors that had matched her up with the restaurant, but she said her pleas for their intervention were met with threats that her visa could be taken away.

Soon, it dawned on her that she faced a Faustian choice: endure the grueling conditions at the restaurant or risk being deported for not showing up to work.

“Because the J-1 terms are so restrictive, if they stop working for a day, they are out of status and deportable, so the employers hold all of the strings.” — Kathryn Xian, Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery

“At the time, I was confused and didn’t know what to do,” the chef said, recalling her ordeal in 2012. Civil Beat granted her anonymity and withheld the restaurant’s name at her request. She said she feared reprisals.

The chef’s story, recounted in an interview conducted in Japanese, provides a rare glimpse into the dark side of the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, which was created half a century ago to foster “global understanding” through cultural exchanges but has since blossomed into the source of thriving, multi-million-dollar businesses.

But it’s virtually impossible to determine just how common these experiences are among about 2,000 J-1 visa holders in Hawaii.

That’s in part because the program, as a cultural exchange, isn’t subject to monitoring by the U.S. Department of Labor — unlike other guest worker programs.

The State Department, for its part, recently established a system to keep track of all complaints it receives, but spokeswoman Susan Pittman told Civil Beat that the tally for the entire program isn’t readily available, and a Freedom of Information Act request must be submitted before the data could be compiled.

Kathryn Xian, founder and executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, says another reason the issue tends to fly under people’s radar is that the victims often choose to escape their situation by simply returning to their home country.

“What’s difficult about J-1 is that these people usually don’t seek help,” Xian said. “Because the J-1 terms are so restrictive, if they stop working for a day, they are out of status and deportable, so the employers hold all of the strings.”
‘Notoriety’ and ‘Disrepute’

Created under the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961, the J-1 program was designed to give foreign students and young professionals a temporary work experience and expose them to the American way of life — at no cost to taxpayers.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people pay upwards of $10,000 in fees and insurance to enter the country under the program and work for four to 18 months. The State Department’s latest figures show that more than 297,000 J-1 visas were issued in 2012, including 2,021 visas for those heading to work in Hawaii.

But, in recent years, some participants — and their advocates — have complained that it’s being used as a source of cheap, foreign labor with little federal oversight.

The issue grabbed national headlines in 2012, when hundreds of J-1 visa holders working at Hershey’s packing plant in Pennsylvania staged a raucous protest. About 400 of them were staying in the country for “Summer Work Travel,” the biggest of the 14 categories of the J-1 program allowing students of modest means to work in a temporary job as a way of offsetting the costs of their travel to the U.S.

“In theory, these sponsors are supposed to be helping keep participants safe and avoid exploitations of any kind to take place. But, in reality, a fox is in charge of the hen house.” — Stephen Boykewich, National Guestworker Alliance

They were put to work, often on night shifts, lifting heavy boxes and packing chocolates on Hershey’s fast-moving production line — while being paid substantially below the minimum wage after deductions.

The troubling tales of the summer programs were nothing new to officials at the State Department. In 2010, an investigation by the Associated Press uncovered widespread abuse, finding that some students were taking home less than $1 an hour, while others were being forced to work as strippers — even though the regulations prohibit the students from taking on work that could “bring the Department of State into notoriety or disrepute.”

In response, the State Department conducted a systematic review of the summer program and eventually acknowledged that its “work component … has too often overshadowed the core cultural component.”

The department later issued new rules for the program that significantly reduced the types of jobs the students can perform — to keep them away from most warehouse, construction, manufacturing and food-processing work. The rules also tightened requirements on the sponsor organizations and their contractors that administer the J-1 program on behalf of the State Department, ensuring that students were matched up with jobs that are appropriate and safe.
Ripe for Exploitation

The changes haven’t rooted out all the unlawful labor practices in the J-1 program.

Last week, the Labor Department announced that a Waikiki-based wedding planner called Wave USA Inc. — aka Ka Nalu Wedding — agreed to pay more than $35,000 in restitution to a group of eight Japanese employees, all of whom were here on J-1.

According to the Labor Department, the eight were the company’s “front-line workers” from November 2012 to July 2014 and were paid full-time salaries that varied from $700 to $1,000 a month — a rate well below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Stephen Boykewich, communications director at the National Guestworker Alliance, which helped organize the Hershey’s protest in 2012, said the problems persist because of the program’s flawed setup: The sponsor organizations and their contractors, which are responsible for vetting the hosting companies, are the ones tasked to monitor the working conditions. So, when any problem comes up, they have a vested interest in downplaying it.

“In theory, these sponsors are supposed to be helping keep participants safe and avoid exploitations of any kind to take place,” Boykewich said. “But, in reality, a fox is in charge of the hen house.”

In Hawaii, the issue is compounded by the fact that there are only seven sponsor organizations operating in the islands, and they only place participants into academic institutions — typically as scholars or physicians.

That means those looking for nonacademic work in Hawaii are forced to find their sponsor organization from the mainland, and this arrangement makes the regular, on-site monitoring of the working conditions a logistical nightmare.

John Robert Egan, an immigration attorney who once chaired the Hawaii chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the way the system is set up now works to the advantage of unscrupulous employers.

“Part of the problem is that they are bringing in people who don’t speak good enough English and are not familiar with the legal system and don’t know what protections are available. So that’s ripe for exploitation,” Egan said.

‘Alleged Bad Acts’

The Japanese pastry chef came to Hawaii hoping that her training here would bring her closer to realizing her dream of opening her own bakery.

To make her trip possible, she had to work with layers of contractors in Japan. First, she dealt with a company called Global Associates and its subsidiary, Hawaii Exchange Service. They then put her in touch with their affiliate — a Japanese company called the American Career Opportunity Inc. — to help her go through an English proficiency test and work with a California-based sponsor organization called the ASSE International Student Exchange Programs.

In all, she paid about $8,850 in fees and $1,300 for her medical insurance. And she spent thousands of dollars more to make living arrangements in Hawaii.

By the time she arrived and discovered her restaurant’s working conditions, her savings account had been tapped out. “I felt trapped as I had invested so much time and money to come to work on my J-1 visa,” she wrote in her 2012 affidavit to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “I did not believe I could go home as I would realistically never have another opportunity to come back to the U.S.”

But going back to work for the restaurant wasn’t much of a choice for her, either. Luckily, a network of friends, victims’ advocates and pro bono attorneys came to her rescue and got her in touch with officials at the U.S. State and Labor departments.

“I’m terrified of running into the restaurant owners. I’m too scared; I still can’t walk alone in Waikiki.” — Pastry chef from Japan

This, in turn, triggered a barrage of calls from officials at American Career Opportunity and Global Associates. They called her — and her mother in Japan — incessantly, trying to convince her to go back to work at the restaurant. When it became clear that she wasn’t going back, she said they tried to intimidate her into voluntarily returning to Japan.

Fearing that she’d be deported, she fled her apartment and went into hiding. At first, she stayed at the house of a married couple she had befriended during her first week in Hawaii. Then, Xian of the Pacific Alliance found her space at a shelter run by a local church.

As far as the chef knows, the investigations at the State and Labor departments are still pending — more than three years later. Meanwhile, with the help of attorneys, she applied for a T-1 visa, which is set aside for trafficking victims. After about a year, her application was approved, enabling her to stay in the country and start working again.

Ira Kurzban, general counsel for ASSE, says the company wasn’t notified about the case until federal authorities got involved.

“From our perspective, we did everything we could possibly do as soon as we learned that there was a problem,” Kurzban said, adding that the State Department “has never said” that the company engaged in “any of the alleged bad acts that were claimed to have happened.”

Officials from the State and Labor departments declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns.

Officials at American Career Opportunity did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment. Global Associates and Hawaii Exchange Service could not be reached.

The chef is trying to move past her bitter experience. With Xian’s help, she managed to recover the fees she had paid for her visa. And, last year, she got a cooking job at the Kahala Mall and has saved enough to move into her own apartment.

But there’s one thing she still can’t shake: “It’s been three years now, but, to this day, I’m terrified of running into the restaurant owners. I’m too scared; I still can’t walk alone in Waikiki.”


8 comments on “Honolulu Civil Beat: Cultural Exchange Program or a Ticket to Sweatshop Labor? Contrast US with J example of exploitative visa conditions

  • So, just to check, ‘Japanese trainee pastry chef’ violates her visa status, goes on the lam for 3 years whilst being able to continue living and working in the US, whilst also receiving legal support free of charge, so that she can fight deportation?

    She at no point had her passport confiscated by her employer? She wasn’t locked in her dormitory? She wasn’t arrested by the police or immigration for visa violations and detained in circumstances criticized by the UN and Amnesty International as ‘violating her human rights’, for years, whilst awaiting trial, only to be found not guilty of violating her original visa status, but deported for having a visa expire whilst in custody? She wasn’t killed whilst being restrained by the police, or killed by immigration officials forcing her onto a plane to be deported, or killed during detention because the doctor ‘was out at lunch’?

    Gee, cry me a river why don’t ya’?

  • What is more, certain kinds of activities on the J-1 are supposed to mean that the EMPLOYERS are required to pay FICA tax (US old-age pension and disability insurance / “social security”) on the wages paid. When certain companies hire “cultural ambassadors” at a popular Disney resort, and then have the “ambassadors” work as wait staff, that’s a no-no for FICA exemption.

    It’s more than a State Department issue — it’s a Treasury issue, too.

  • RandomCommentator says:

    A lot of the blame for this falls on the J-1 visa program. In this case it is being used as a “working holiday” where the Japanese participant gets to come to the US and work for a period of time. But because the US visa system renders someone removable the moment they are out of status, it sets the stage for exploitation where the employer can make unreasonable demands of the employee (“guest worker”) while dangling the sword of deportation above them.

    This isn’t the case for a real working holiday program, such as the one between Japan and many other countries, because working holidaymakers don’t lose status through not working – they can quit their job and find another one. Not great, but better than being rendered removable.

    The lack of a working holiday agreement also disadvantages US citizens, who suffer limited youth mobility options in other countries as a direct result, because working holiday agreements are reciprocal. It’s also bad for working holidaymakers coming to the US because they have to pay huge fees to (often shady) sponsor organizations.

    But all of that aside, T-1 status for a J-1 non-immigrant is an affront to the integrity of the US visa system. Looking at the requirements (http://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/victims-human-trafficking-other-crimes/victims-human-trafficking-t-nonimmigrant-status) it is hard to see how this case could qualify for T-1: labor trafficking is defined as “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery” which is not the case, and “not being able to come to the US again” if she went home to Japan is hardly severe hardship.

    More to the point, it is to her advantage that the case is taking a long time, because after three years in T-1 status, permanent residence (a green card) is almost guaranteed.

    Claims of fear “I still can’t walk alone” and being trapped “I have no money” from a minority woman are likely to be heard no matter how well-founded, and just like it is better to free the guilty than convict the innocent, it is better for immigration authorities to err in favor of granting those kind of applications. I leave it to the reader to question whether a broke Irish male on a J-1 would be issued with a visa meant for victims of human trafficking no matter how abusive his employer.

    The best thing would be for the US to introduce a proper working holiday scheme. Until then, the J-1 participants suffer from abusive employers, and that opens the door for conversions of the temporary stay intended by J-1 into permanent residence through bad-faith claims of trafficking encouraged by unscrupulous immigration lawyers.

  • Sounds messed up, but Ive heard of situations lets just say in a U.S. territory, that were like this. I think some employers are pushing as hard as they can to avoid taxes and regs. There is some weird stuff out there, and dont think it just goes on in Japan.

  • Jim, this exploitation is deplorable regardless of severity.

    Unfortunately immigrant laborers are all too easy to make into “others”, kicking off vestigial tribalism and apathy. Additionally, western political rhetoric and austerity measures posit that the powerless are to blame for a nation’s woes. Sickening.

    We’ve come a long way as a species, but there is still a long way to go.

  • @ Arbitary #5

    So, will this traumatized former trainee pastry chef, in light of her experience, and realizing that ‘trainees’ in Japan have it much, much worse, call for Japanese companies and the Japanese government to take the moral high-ground and set a global standard for non-abusive treatment of imported labor?

    No. Of course not. She doesn’t care at all. ‘Poor victim me’ Nihonjin mentality?

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    J-1 is a student visa, not work-visa or professional training visa like M1. But, it’s not just the matter of which visa category you belong to. The main problem is with the existence of this rampant abusive labor practice, and weak legal mechanism to keep legal non-immigrants from falling prey to this type of predatory manual labor.

    Typically, immigration system and labor law come under heavy scrutiny–as far as human rights are of high concern. No other country escapes the criticism–not even for Japan.

  • Jim, you are right that NJ in Japan have it bad, as do foreign workers in some countries, and that her case is mild in comparison. You are probably right that this individual and her story alone are unlikely to change anything in Japan.

    Generally people that don’t live and work overseas have no idea all that it entails. (“300,000 yen fine and a weekend in jail for forgetting your wallet containing your Residence Card?”) Maybe she will be an anonymous panelist on a variety show about Japan’s future dependence on immigrant labor. Maybe some Hawaiians will learn that wage theft exceeds the aggregate of robbery, auto theft, burglary, and larceny in the US. Some people may for the first time in their lives think, “oh yeah, employers tend to hold power over employees and may not always operate in the best interests of those people. Golly, immigrant workers have even less power, lack franchise, and risk deportation (or worse) if they try to speak up.”

    Maybe I am optimistic and naive in my thinking that societal change happens gradually.


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