FOR MANY central European students, a summer of work and travel in the United States is an opportunity to earn money, develop language skills and see the world. For some, however, legal loopholes and unscrupulous operators can turn the experience into one of poverty and desperation.
A recruiter for Washington DC area McDonald's restaurants, for example, has recently been fingered by a US senator and the State Department for allegedly gouging Polish and Slovak students through high rent charges and bogus pay deductions. Other students have complained of working without pay, or finding pre-arranged jobs non-existent upon arrival to the US.
"This is becoming a national scandal," said Les Kuczynski, executive director of the Chicago-based Polish American Congress, whose organisation has received complaints from across the country of students, largely from central Europe, being abused by their employers.
Participants in work and travel programmes, who must be at least 18 years and enrolled in full-time higher education programmes, are granted US 'J-1' visas, allowing them to work in a range of seasonal jobs for up to four months.
Local agencies recruit such participants in their home countries and place the recruits through sponsoring organisations in the US, typically to work in youth camps, restaurants, hotels, resorts and fun parks.
But in late August, the Baltimore Sun daily reported on the case of a group of Slovak and Polish students who had been recruited to work at Washington DC area McDonald's restaurants by Donna Maertens, a Virginia-based consultant for the fast-food chain.
Five of the students submitted a complaint through the local branch of the Polish American Congress to Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski that they had been required to pay $2,000 per month, plus an additional $200 each for a security deposit, on a two-room flat they all shared, with the charges being deducted from their pay checks. The flat normally rents for $750 per month.
Besides those accusations, the five complained that deductions had also been made for US social security and Medicare health insurance payments, which J-1 visitors are legally exempt from paying, leaving them with virtually nothing to live on.
McDonald's officials later responded that the students had been refunded the improper social security and Medicare payments, and after Mikulski brought the case to the attention of the State Department, an agency official said that "the complaints by the five students are well-founded".
More than 400 foreign students were recruited this summer to work at McDonald's restaurants in the Washinton DC area.
Another sponsor who reportedly brought several hundred J-1 visitors to the US this year, David Marzano, pleaded guilty in US federal court in Atlanta in late July to charges of unlawfully encouraging aliens to reside in the US, and was due to begin a 15-month jail sentence on August 27. However, Marzano denied that his conviction stemmed from abuses of the J-1 programme.
Marzano's company, Global Staffing, recruits foreign temporary workers for jobs in hotels and resorts across the US and is listed on Czech firm Student Agency's web page as a "disadvantageous employer". Global Staffing, together with a related company, was fined $81,000 in July for immigration violations.
Information on potential Slovak victims of such abuses proved difficult to obtain, however.
Although the ITC travel agency, one of at least seven in Slovakia accredited by the State Department to offer work and travel programmes, said that 200 students had received J-1 visas this year through their efforts, other agencies refused to say how many had been accepted, or how many had been turned down.
The US embassy in Bratislava declined to state how many J-1 visas had been granted for the 2002 summer.
Igor Pacolák, consul at the Slovak embassy in Washington DC, told The Slovak Spectator that he did not know how many Slovaks had come to the US on J-1 visas, but that his embassy had not received any complaints.
Agencies in Slovakia offering such programmes typically charge upwards of $500 dollars for visa services and arranging flight tickets, with the price of the latter not included.
More complete packages with concrete job offers and pre-arranged accommodation can cost hundreds of dollars more without necessarily giving any extra security.
"While most participants enter the US with pre-arranged employment, sponsors [in the US] are required to place only 50 per cent of their participants each year," reads a State Department document on the J-1 programme.
However, the document continues: "Sponsors are required to undertake reasonable efforts to secure suitable employment for participants who have not found suitable employment within one week of commencing their job search."
But students visiting the US to work may not fully understand their rights or the responsibilities of their sponsoring organisations, leading to possibilities of abuse.
Glen Huff, a former US Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Slovakia and Namibia, became acquainted with a group of Czech and Slovak students in his home state of Mississippi, one of whom, Peter Ondrej, he knew from Prešov University in Slovakia.
Ondrej, who is teaching English in Taiwan and was unavailable for comment on this article, turned to Huff for help early this summer after he had been turned away from a promised position, and another job he had found seemed questionable.
"There were 20 or 30 Czechs and Slovaks who were working at [department stores] K-mart and Wal-Mart, cleaning floors and doing maintenance. [The employers] would lock them in at night and they couldn't leave until somebody came and opened the doors in the morning," Huff said of the group.
"They didn't pay [Ondrej] the first week because he was in training, then the next four weeks they said he wouldn't get paid, because they held back a month's pay.
"So he worked about three or four more weeks, and then they said 'we have a different crew, we don't know who you are', and Peter didn't know who the manager was," said Huff, adding that Ondrej eventually received a single pay check for two weeks of work.
"A little while ago I walked into a Wal-Mart in Brookhaven Mississippi and I saw a young guy cleaning the floor. I asked him if he was Czech and he said he was, so it looks like the same thing is continuing," said Huff.
9. Sep 2002 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka