Business/Economy

Are foreign students who come to Alaska for summer work on a cultural exchange or just low-paid labor?

Second of two parts

In the midst of a summer downpour, a hundred college students from China, Thailand and Serbia huddled under a white tent at the O'Malley's on the Green golf course in South Anchorage.

The occasion was a "cultural picnic" hosted by  EduSunrising, which describes itself as a "cultural exchange" company that places students from Asian countries at summer jobs in the United States, including in Alaska, under the U.S. State Department's J-1 program.

The program allows college students from a roster of countries to spend four months working and one month traveling in America under what's known as a "J-1 Visa." The students at the picnic were mostly employed in restaurants or hotels: Subway sandwiches and Carl's Jr. bags lined the picnic tables, food donated from the restaurants where the students were working.

[Part 1: In Alaska, young foreign workers on "cultural exchange" visas wash the dishes and make hotel beds]

Some see the J-1 program as a valuable cultural exchange. Others believe it is a low-wage work program in disguise that does little to show its participants America beyond the back of a fast food restaurant or the inside of a hotel laundry room.

Either way, 1,656 workers came to Alaska through the program in 2014, the most recent data reported by the State Department, making up an important part of the workforce in the state's crucial summer tourism industry.

The picnic was a grab bag of cultural influences. A Choctaw prayer. Yup'ik drumming. Songs in Chinese. Traditional Thai dancing. A representative of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski exhorting exchange programs. Someone from Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's office. A speech about creating "a more brilliant future."

Among young women performing traditional Thai dances in peacock blue dresses and heavy silver jewelry were Sukanya Phurungsriroj, Keawarin Sangprapai, Phetphailin Yammaneechai and Auraiwan Wongkoon.

Unlike some J-1 workers who report living in overcrowded apartments and working 80-90 hours a week in an effort to maximize earnings and pay back loans to get to America, the four Thai women were experiencing a very different version of Alaska J-1 life.

They were working a 32-hour week at a Carl's Jr. in Eagle River, and living in the lively home of Bupa McKay and her 16-year-old daughter, Apple Duangprom.

McKay, 52, came to Alaska from Thailand 30 years ago. Hosting seasonal workers from her home country offers her a chance to connect to Thai culture and an appreciative audience for the multi-course dinners she prepares nightly.

"I make food for them every day like a family," she said. "Like a big family."

On one weekday evening, the girls prepared a dinner with cantaloupe and rice with McKay and watched Thai music videos.  At the end of the summer, all said they planned to travel, perhaps to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. They expected to spend much of the money they'd made during the summer. They all said they had chosen Alaska not because of the money-making opportunities but for fun and the possibility of seeing wildlife, they said.

Not all of their experiences had been sweet. While they were walking to a park in Eagle River, a man came out of a home with a gun on his belt, swore at the women and told them to get away from his truck. At another fast food restaurant, Sangprapai said an employee spoke unkindly to her, denigrated her English skills and made fun of her real name.  

Before long it was time to get back to work. Just before 10 p.m. Phurungsriroj, who uses the nickname Cherry, and Wongkoon, who goes by Pear, put their red fast-food uniforms on and returned to Carl's Jr. to help close the restaurant.

 

'It's been warped and abused'

The J-1 program was originally conceived as a tool of soft diplomacy — a way for young people from foreign nations to experience America and then return home to share their experiences with others, said Meredith Stewart, the author of a Southern Poverty Law Center research report on J-1 worker conditions in the American South.  

But if it's supposed to leave a positive impression of America, it often fails, contends Stewart.

"It has been warped and abused by employers," she said. "It's turned into a low-wage work program."

The J-1 program, unlike other visa programs for workers, is overseen by the U.S. Department of State rather than the Department of Labor. The program is attractive because companies can bring in temporary foreign workers without having to deal with the bureaucracy of other work programs, Stewart said.

Unlike the  H-2B visa program, for other classes of temporary foreign workers, employers don't have to prove they need to bring in overseas labor because Americans won't fill the jobs. Seasonal workers on J-1 visas are required to pay local, state and federal income taxes. But employers do not have to pay payroll taxes for J-1 workers, which some organizations advertise as a benefit. 

"The savings an employer can realize by not paying an employee's Medicare, Social Security or federal unemployment tax — around 8 percent on its total payroll expenses — have led staffing agencies to promote the program as an inexpensive labor force," Stewart wrote in the Southern Poverty Law Center report.

In this way, hiring J-1 workers became a "cheap alternative" to more heavily regulated work programs, Stewart said.

Workers on J-1 visas are supposed to make the same wages that an American would for the same position. But according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank critical of the Summer Work Travel program, no "enforceable prevailing wage rule" requires the workers to be paid the local average rate for a job. 

In Alaska, jobs filled by J-1 workers vary but tend to start with entry-level service industry work such as dishwashing that pays at or just above the minimum wage. In Alaska, that's $9.75 per hour. Some returning J-1 workers in housekeeping and restaurant work are promoted to supervisor positions and see a pay increase. 

Labor activists say the workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Participants' visas are attached to their jobs. In areas like Denali National Park or other national parks and resort areas where tourist services are clustered, workers are geographically isolated, and often their housing is arranged or supplied by their employer. If workers lose their jobs, they lose their place to live and legal status in the country, Stewart said.

That means they are unlikely to complain if problems arise, said Marvin Jones, the president of UNITE HERE Local 878, the union that represents hotel and restaurant workers in Anchorage. Jones and organizer Daniel Esparza said they aren't opposed to J-1 workers but believe that locals would actually fill the jobs. They also say the conditions and workload J-1 workers are willing to accept undercut their own efforts to improve the lot of union members.

The middleman companies that are supposed to watch out for their foreign placements in America often have no one on the ground in Alaska.

"What gets me is when I have people calling me up and saying they're getting turned down for housekeeping jobs or told, 'We have your application' on file and they're hiring J-1s instead," Jones said.

The question of whether J-1 workers are taking jobs local workers would actually fill isn't easily answered. The Alaska Department of Labor  doesn't keep statistics on the J-1 labor force, said Mali Abrahamson, a department analyst .

Nationally, J-1 visa work faces tighter regulation than it used to. Alaska used to host more than 4,000 J-1 workers per summer, with most of them working in far-flung fish processing plants. But in 2012, the State Department banned placements in such factories, responding to a highly publicized walkout of workers protesting conditions at a Hershey's chocolate factory in Pennsylvania.

Critics argued that working on the slime line in a remote fish camp offered no meaningful cultural interaction for the students. Placements with traveling carnivals were also among the categories of work banned. Members of Alaska's congressional delegation protested, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. 

In 2015, Murkowski secured a provision in a year-end omnibus bill to allow J-1 workers in Alaska seafood processing plants through the end of the 2016 fiscal year, according to her office.

"This is an important program relied on by many of Alaska's seafood processors who struggle to fill large numbers of seasonal jobs locally, in-state, or domestically due to a lack of applicants, and are forced to hire staff from outside the United States through a temporary education visa program," a spokesperson wrote in a December statement.

But this summer, processors have been telling Murkowski they aren't  using J-1s because of the uncertainty surrounding the program, according to her office.

The Southern Poverty Law Center believes housekeeping jobs should be added to the banned list. Cleaning doesn't offer much opportunity for interaction with Americans and the isolation of the work leaves workers vulnerable to abuse by management, Stewart said.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association sees it differently. Tourism businesses will always need a seasonal workforce that simply can't be filled locally, said Jillian Simpson, the organization's vice president.

Without J-1 workers, "it would be a challenge for businesses to supplement their workforce in the summer," she said.  "Some may not be able to function."

Randy Neitzel, director of human resources for Alyeska Resort, agrees. Typically, Alyeska employs between 15 and 18 students participating in the Summer Work Travel program, he said.

For the resort, J-1 students augment a staff made up primarily of local hires. Alyeska attends job fairs and other recruiting methods but the resort's location outside of Anchorage makes it more difficult to fill the staff locally, Neitzel said.

The J-1 workers also lend an international flair that is especially appreciated by visitors from abroad, he said.

Jones, the union organizer, said he approaches legislators in Juneau every year about the J-1 program. He's often met with blank stares.

"Most of (the legislators) had no clue of the impact it was having or even what a J-1 visa worker was," he said.

He thinks of one J-1 worker who reached out to him. The man was so exhausted that he'd fallen asleep on his bicycle getting from one job to another.

 

Trafficked?

During the 11 years Golden Wheel Amusements hired overseas workers to operate midway games and food stands at fairs from Kodiak to Fairbanks, owners Joe and Jacqueline Leavitt say, they tried their hardest to live up to the original intent of the J-1 program.

"We'd actually try to treat them like it was supposed to be, a work and travel, and have fun on some days," Joe Leavitt said. There were canoe trips on the Chena River, water taxi rides across Kachemak Bay, hikes and museum visits.

"We were able to really very deeply get to know people from all different cultures through this program, and they us," Jacqueline Leavitt said.

During the summer of 2013, Golden Wheel found itself in a disturbing situation that laid bare the most serious vulnerabilities foreign seasonal workers can face. It was the last year the traveling carnival company was allowed to use the program under new rules.

It started the day after the Leavitts picked up four young women from China who went by the names Joky, Danny, Florence and Joey. They had come to Alaska to spend the summer with Golden Wheel as J-1 workers. Jacqueline Leavitt got an unsettling phone call: The person on the other line said he was a Chinese government official looking into a complaint against her company. She says she was told she needed to bring the women to the official immediately.

At a Starbucks on Tudor Road, Jacqueline said she met a man and a woman she believed were Chinese. They wore suits and spoke to the girls in Mandarin. The four young women were also convinced they had to leave with these people, Leavitt said.

"We put them in the car," she said. "I would never do that again."

A few days later, Anchorage resident Scott Hawkins got an email from Joky. Hawkins, who runs a supply chain management company for oil and gas operations, had met Joky and Florence in the Seattle airport as they waited to fly to Alaska. Realizing they knew no one in Anchorage, he gave them his business card.

"I said if you need anything, if you have any problems, get in touch with me," said Hawkins in an interview recently.

The email exchange with Joky set off alarm bells. She described herself being kept in a Spenard motel, unable to see visitors and not allowed to leave, Hawkins said.

"This sounds like a problem, Joky," he replied. "You should be allowed to be free."

Hawkins called the FBI. Jolene Goeden, an Anchorage-based FBI agent specializing in human trafficking and crimes against children, listened to Hawkins' concerns.

Hawkins wrote back to Joky. He tried to tell her help was coming in a way that wouldn't scare her.

"I didn't want to say, 'We're going to have the police come get you,' because these things get lost in translation. So I said I would like to help you. I know some qualified people. They can come in and get you out of there," he said. "That was the phrase I used, 'qualified people.'"

Days later, Joky emailed Hawkins to let him know that they were in a safe place and would soon return to Golden Wheel Amusements' employment.

"Thank you for contacting the qualified people to protect us," she wrote.

After the meeting at Starbucks, the women had been taken to a motel where they waited for days to be placed in a work situation that never materialized, Jacqueline Leavitt said. They were not free to come and go unescorted and were underfed, she was told.

To this day, both Hawkins and Leavitt remain unclear who the people were who took the women away, and what their intentions had been.

The women did not speak of any physical or sexual abuse, they said.

Goeden, the FBI agent, wouldn't comment on the details of this case or the agency's response to it. But she confirmed that the situation Hawkins and Leavitt described was concerning, and credits Hawkins for sounding the alarm.

In general, human trafficking — defined as keeping a person for forced labor or commercial sex by force or threats — often starts with isolation, Goeden said. But labor trafficking can be difficult to prosecute. 

"The element that is difficult sometimes for us to get is the actual physical force, or threats of force, or threats of harm," Goeden said.

The Alaska bureau takes a few reports each month about suspected labor trafficking, and situations involving J-1 workers represent one of many possible scenarios, she said.

It's not hard for Hawkins to imagine how things might have turned out much worse had he not handed the women his business card.

"They don't know who to go to. They don't know how to get in touch with the police," he said.

When the four young women returned to work for Golden Wheel, it was decided that they would live in the Leavitts' home, not in the Chugiak dorms the company normally used. Three of the women remained with the company all summer and grew close to the family, even traveling to Arizona and California together when the summer season was done.

Three years later, Jacqueline Leavitt still feels guilty about what happened with Joky and the others.

"You know, on the other side of the world there is a parent who has sent their child across the world …," she said. "And I'm the parent on this side of the world that is guaranteeing that they're going to be safe."

As satisfying as relationships with some J-1 workers have been for the family, she feels some relief that they were the last of the students Golden Wheel would hire through the State Department program.

Would she hire J-1 students again? She paused.

"You know," she said, "I'd have to pray about it."

Read Part 1: In Alaska, young foreign workers on "cultural exchange" visas wash the dishes and make hotel beds

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.

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