Oh Gosh … I didn’t know that

Every so often I am reminded that like most people I go about in a sort of nearly-in-the-world way, that is, my life is filled with my own stuff. (Nice too, often enough) Then, something happens and there it is again … real … and it was there to be seen/known, but I just didn’t see it. I wasn’t paying attention.

On Wednesday evening I went to The Island Free Library to hear Raul Mickle tell us about the foreign workers on the island for the summer season. Like everyone, I knew there were lots of young people now here with non-english accents, riding bikes, carting the laundry baskets, on the desks/tills at re-opened outlets, etc. I lumped them in with the requests for summer housing, the folk on the library lawn using the free wifi, the summer people… all sorts of people. I knew the Rec room at the church was being used … I thought for more wifi access, social stuff, brownies and coffee, a bit of english as a foreign language … well it is … but what a lot more!!!

Now, I know:

The Department of State sponsors a J-i Visa program for foreign students The Summer Work Travel program provides foreign students with an opportunity to live and work in the United States during their summer vacation from college or university to experience and to be exposed to the people and way of life in the United States.

Throughout the United States – there are foreign students working, getting this experience. US way of life – all available…

The program works through “sponsors” that is companies who find the students and connect them with employers

sponsors! ?? New word definition here!
Each student pays at least $6000 to these commercial “sponsors” to get on the program

each student is vetted, their families and college/university records vetted before the visa is granted, each stage at some cost

the students have all kinds of skills, majoring in every subject you can think of

they are pre-assigned by the ‘sponsors’ to employers

There are at least 220 students on this island who have gone through this process to come here and do the menial work for minimum wage as they are assigned. These are top-of-the class young people, from all around the world.

MANY, maybe most, have a great employer and a great time, they even return.


who vets the sponsors or the employers??

The rules are strict. Students arrive here, off the boat, before they have worked a day:

pay for their housing… Block Island summer worker housing!!! … (for those readers not on BI, at its worst this can be a shared shack, room above a garage, no bathroom (you go at your work), no lock for your door, nowhere to cook or eat…)

might pay for a bicycle to get to work

might pay for T-shirts or other uniform for their work

might work only as assigned by the schedule given, that day or just before, or before the season gets started, sorry no work yet, but you still pay for all of the above..

Gosh – I didn’t know that

There are a few examples given: the student spotted paying for bananas at the store with a credit card (parents had sent it over as there was no money left at all and earnings were paying off the debts arrival had incurred); another in her first two weeks had been given so few hours that she had paychecks of about $90 and $100– but rent of $125 is taken out, uniform T-shirt cost $30 (what kind of profit was that?) – so effectively she is now “owned by the company store”; Some have been told – you can’t be paid until you have a social security number – not true – work done can be paid as soon as it is done; Some have even been threatened: your visa can be withdrawn, if you look for other work you can be sent home, etc.

Worst of all – there is a ‘hotline’ to the sponsors, and one to the State Department, so that complaint can be made – ha ha – those who have tried this have been patronised at best “Just take time to settle in/ try another few weeks/” or dismissed “The rules are quite clear”.

It is not, or not just, “A bad employer problem”. Not just one or two ‘bad apples’. There is a systemic fault here – which is desperately similar to all kinds of abuse cases wherever it occurs. Victims are doubly abused as those who should hear, do not want to listen.

Gosh – but I did know that – there is room for abuse everywhere and if you pay attention you will see it. So start looking.

Thanks to Socha and Raul who arranged the library talk. Now we are looking and communicating.  All the really really good BI employers and wonderful students will get their credit as well as their experiences to be valued.

And where there is abuse, we will be finding it. I think I am about to make some more friends too – off to socialize down at the rec center at the church – off to plan a campaign. Get out a fact sheet, etc. To employers and students, we can work together on this.

Block Island community strikes again!





6 thoughts on “Oh Gosh … I didn’t know that

    1. Wow indeed – the irony is that when I was in Edinburgh I had heard stories about this program, I remember a chinese Masters student who had been in Virginia and had an appalling time, and one of the things I responded was “you would have been OK on Block Island”. Well maybe…xx to you too


  1. Seems like blatant exploitation, and generally disgusting behaviour.
    What a wonderful advertisement for the country.
    Then I compare this with the Rotary Exchange Students or Study Exchanges, in which I have been involved during my time as a Rotarian – what a difference!


  2. Pingback: elspethc

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