This post is a slight deviation from my topics on life in Argentina. I was drafting a post on the abundance of labor unions here (coming soon) when I happened upon an interesting article in the New York Times discussing foreign students on the J-1 visa to the United States protesting their working conditions (here is the article).
First off, let me say that I am considerably ignorant of the many visas the US government issues. I once literally elicited a facepalm from Fernando when, after he’d told me he would have to go through a somewhat lengthy and expensive application process at the US embassy for a tourist-level visa (which he might not even receive), I stupidly asked, “What? You need a visa?” As a citizen it had never occurred to me what a foreigner might have to do to enter my country. That is embarrassingly ignorant.
Secondly, while I believe the kids’ strike is awesome and gutsy, I have serious issues with certain aspects of this program – primarily that the US government is giving away US jobs to foreign citizens. Isn’t this kind of like internal outsourcing? I fully support global education and cultural exchange but, without touching on actual outsourcing, a program like this seems glaringly harmful to a struggling US economy with national unemployment hovering at 9%. If I understand it correctly, the program is really designed for students (and a few others – there seem to be different categories that fall into the J-1) to gain valuable academic and business knowledge and/or partake in research, and not for US corporations to increase profits by taking advantage of an easy loophole.
J1 visas require an official “sponsoring organization” which has been designated and approved by the US State Department. Sponsors can be private or public organizations. Private, for-profit J1 Work and Travel operators have multiplied, making it difficult to sort through to find the best program. For a fee, these programs will get you a J1 visa, get you a job, provide health insurance and sometimes travel and lodging. There are many good and respected J1 visa operators, but some have provided sub-par experiences to their participants, and it pays to do your research.
– internationalstudent.com J1 info page
While it is easy to want to blame the students’ egos or naiveté, I am angry at the organization arranging the jobs and at the offending corporations. Truthfully, it sounds like a fun and benign program; several hundred thousand US students go abroad each year on similar visas, though they rarely have the advantage of foreign employment offsetting their program costs (a popular spanish school here offers a non-credit language and volunteer program for about $2700 for six weeks). That doesn’t mean I can’t laugh at some of the foreign students’ issues, though.
I know, I know – it’s pretty jerkish of me. But they’re really going to complain about working the night shift or about standing on their feet for many hours? Welcome to Uhmerka, honeys. I’m sorry you couldn’t be given a comfy job in an executive’s office, but lifting boxes and working production is the reality for a lot of us. By the way, that $8.35 wage you were getting paid is higher than Pennsylvania’s minimum wage (if you think that’s bad, compare it to the national average. Also, read Michele Bachmann’s thoughts on the matter – SCARY). Does that amount pay all your program fees? Probably not. Is it livable? Nope, not really. Are you getting a first-hand account of what America really is? Yes. Do I know many American citizens that would love to have your job? Absolutely, without a doubt. I am legitimately sorry you got duped by the image of America being the land of the plentiful and that you paid thousands of dollars to come visit only to be used as cheap labor. It was not fair to you and the terms of your program nor to the American citizens in dire need of income. I don’t believe for one second, though, that your protests will make US workers happy.
I really am inspired by the kids’ gumption to walkout. I am generally pro-union and I wish that more workers felt that unionization was achievable and beneficial. The problem, however, is that nothing will change despite these students’ heartening dreams and actions. They might go home feeling proud that they stuck it to the Mighty American Capitalist, while no worker, either a new student next summer or the local citizen, is truly better off because of it. Granted, the only thing these students might lose is their visa (and the ability to return to the States for several years). A heavily pro-business model doesn’t merely frown upon unionization, it actively smites it; Reagan infamously dealt with the air traffic controller strike in 1981 by firing more than 11,000 workers. Capitalism’s mantra of “keep costs down” doesn’t really benefit workers. The magnificent United States of America is a country where workers struggle daily to make ends meet and are afraid to stage a strike for fear of losing the only job they could find.
Fun fact: one of the largest unions in Argentina is the retail sector.