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Feature Story September 4, 2003
 
Serfin' USA: Duped Russkies
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 6
 
But by the time my generation was in Driver's Ed, minimum wage had long ago stopped keeping pace with inflation. Most of us weren't willing to work for $4.25 an hour doing anything, let alone that brutal combination of assembly line work, customer service, Big Brother surveillance and unfortunate odors that is working in Fast Food.

Various tactics were tried to keep the machine greased with worker bees -- Clinton raised minimum wage slightly, welfare moms were forced to punch clocks in order to get their benefits, multinationals created propaganda to convince employees that they held a stake in the Team -- but nothing could keep the lower end of the service industry from hemorrhaging labor. The problem was especially acute in bedroom communities, far from the vast labor pool of black and brown lumpenproletariat of the inner cities.

And then some clever bureaucrat thought up the J-1 visa. Advertised as a "work-travel" visa that gives foreign students a chance to visit the States, the J-1 functions as a way to import cheap temporary labor without offering any social benefits (J-1ers don't even have to pay taxes) to places with acute labor shortages, where the workers perform what must be, after fruit picking, the shittiest jobs in the US. Low-wage manufacturing jobs fled the country long ago, but the low-fee service sector had to stay put, for obvious reasons. The J-1 allows places ranging from Burger King to summer camps to tap into the global pool of labor rather than the old-fashioned way of luring workers to miserable jobs, by paying higher wages. It is particularly heinous because the workers have to pay their own way for the privilege of working where no-one else wants to. While it's sold by places like STAR and Council Travel as an opportunity to see the States, learn English and return home with wads of cash, really it ends up being much closer to indentured servitude.

Not all J-1 workers are equal, of course. Everyone from the Irish to Eastern Europeans and Nicaraguans flock here to work for the summer, with the English speakers and veterans generally getting the prime jobs involving free housing, such as working as a nanny or country club bartender. Lots of J-1ers even come back. Nothing prevents motivated J-1ers from hunting for work on their own, so really the guys I met in Warrington were lying in a bed of their own making. It's probably asking too much to expect a bunch of Russians fresh off the boat to find decent jobs, but the fact is that no-one was forcing them to be in Warrington.

That said, they certainly weren't getting the exciting working vacation that was advertised. The Russians in Warrington had each thrown down nearly $2000 to finance their trip to the States, which got them a three-month work visa that can be extended for another month in which to travel, a round-trip plane ticket, a social security number and not much else. The sponsor agency (in this case Council Travel, or CIEE) also guaranteed them a 40-hour a week job somewhere in the continental US, housing (which they have to pay for) and directions on how to take a bus there.

Most of the Warrington contingent had arrived in the second wave of workers, about halfway through summer, because bureaucratic snafus at the embassies they applied at had delayed their visas. This meant they were shafted before they even got here: in order to make back the money they paid to get the visa, let alone return with some dough, they would have to stay well past the start of the school year back home. So, while the J-1 is billed as a mutually beneficial summer job program, many of these kids would have to either miss a large chunk of the fall semester by working until their visas expired in October or take a loss and returning home in time for the first bell. Everyone in Warrington had borrowed most of the money they used to finance their trips, so pretty much everyone was planning on staying past the start of school to make enough to pay back the debts. It's really not much of an exaggeration to call them indentured servants.


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