NEW YORK, July 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dozens of young adults visiting the United States in recent years under a cultural exchange visa program have become victims of human trafficking, according to research released on Tuesday that said the program was riddled with abuses and exploitation.
Visitors under the government program often take on debt to pay steep recruitment fees leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, said the report by the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG), a coalition of organizations and academics working to help recruited workers.
The report said victims included women from Kazakhstan who were sex-trafficked in Florida.
About 100,000 people visit the United States each year under the State Department’s exchange visitor program, many of them obtaining J-1 visas to participate in its summer work travel (SWT) project.
But they are often are paid low wages in jobs unlike those promised, face high housing costs and are forced by debts to stay in their jobs, the report said.
“Where you have vulnerable workers who are indebted and working for extra low wages, you create certain vulnerabilities to labor exploitation and human trafficking,” Rachel Micah-Jones, head of the ILRWG, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
With an average age of 21, the summer workers often take jobs in food service, hospitality and amusement parks. Some 16,000 companies participate.
Sixty-seven victims of trafficking holding J-1 visas called anti-trafficking group Polaris’ national hotline from 2015 to 2017, the research said. Of those, six were potential victims of sex trafficking.
“This is likely the tip of the iceberg,” the report said. “Sadly, abuses in the SWT program sometimes escalate beyond wage theft and reach the level of trafficking.”
The International Labour Organization estimates more than 40 million people are enslaved around the world, including victims of labor and sex trafficking.
In the United States, Polaris said 11,000 trafficking cases were reported to its hotline in 2018.
At least five civil or criminal trafficking cases involving J-1 workers have been documented in recent years by the Human Trafficking Legal Center, it said.
But it noted many cases go unreported because workers must leave the country once their program ends.
A State Department spokeswoman said the agency works to protect participants, monitors employment sites and looks into complaints of abuse or mistreatment.
“The safety and security of participants is our first priority, and we take allegations of abuse very seriously,” she said.
The two young women from Kazakhstan were recruited as clerical workers at a Florida yoga studio but, deeply in debt from recruitment fees, were forced to work in a massage parlor and perform illegal sex acts, it said.
The business owner has been sentenced to federal prison on charges of sex trafficking by force.
“The summer work travel program, the way that it’s set up, lends itself to human trafficking,” said Jeremy McLean, policy and advocacy manager at Justice in Motion, a migrant worker-rights group.
“Debt is a strong motive for you to stay in suboptimal conditions, stay in work conditions you didn’t agree to.”
Workers with J-1 visas from Jamaica filed a federal labor trafficking lawsuit in 2018 against a hospitality business in Oklahoma claiming they were put in deep debt, paid low wages and threatened with harm if they left the jobs. The case is pending.
Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Chris Michaud