Inhuman hours and illegalities: summer work and travel
Each year thousands of our tertiary students venture to the United States on the summer work and travel programme. The programme’s main purpose is to facilitate cultural exchange, however, as the Jamaican dollar is undoubtedly weak against the US dollar, most students go for the money. The profits from the programme typically go towards tuition, boarding and new gadgets. Indeed, without the existence of this programme many students would not be able to fund their tertiary education. Thus, it is truly alarming and disheartening that these same students are muddying the very waters they hope to drink.
Last year many were disappointed when five of our students were arrested after using their employment at Walmart as an opportunity to steal from the store. Unfortunately, these incidents are far from rare. In July of this year, two male students were fired (and subsequently deported) as they had been stealing guests’ smartphones from the theme park where they worked. Some of the guests were relentless in tracking their phones and led the police right to the dorm these gentlemen shared. Another student was apprehended as he had been saving credit card information hotel given to him by guests over the phone to book their rooms, and subsequently using the information to make his own personal purchases online.
Jamaicans themselves are hardly safe from the crimes of their fellow students. Many students believed they could make large purchases using other person’s credit/debit cards. This summer saw one student being brazen enough to pay her entire school fee with her roommate’s earnings after gaining access to the young lady’s debit card. Another female student ended up being detained by the police in Wisconsin, after she had purchased a Samsung S7 Edge with her co-worker’s debit card, until her parents in Jamaica were able to wire money to the victim.
Several of the sponsoring agencies in the US have become weary of the issues that seem affiliated with bringing our students overseas. The sponsors are responsible for the students when they are abroad and thus drawn into basically all issues surrounding the students. Employers too are losing interest in hiring Jamaican students, despite acknowledging that they possess an admirable work ethic. When the primary employers provide the job offer form which enables the students to enter the US, they are expecting a certain kind of loyalty. However, the Jamaican students are loyal to the money, not an employer. Once many of the students find a second job, their performance at their primary job declines due to either fatigue or lack of interest. In the students’ defense, the programme itself can become little more than modern day indentureship. Many of the students endure some horrible realities during the summer, but few ever really discuss them in Jamaica as once you were in “foreign”, this equates to prosperity and progress.
Several of our students are faced with new, and scary instances of racism. In Jamaica we may have class prejudice, but racial prejudice is a new experience for many first-timers. One may easily understand why a student said she “just felt like returning home” after a customer told her child not to purchase a ticket from the “black ticket seller”. Another culture shock stems from the fact that the jobs our students end up doing abroad are low-end jobs that most Americans have no interest in. Often the work environment becomes stressful as suddenly Jamaican students who study things such as law and accounting find themselves reduced to only black minimum wage earners in a country where they expect to be treated equal.
Some students face inequality in instances where their supervisors are not Americans. Many European supervisors in theme/water parks (the most popular employers) were once students on the cultural exchange programme who decided not to return home (mostly Bulgarians and Romanians). Often these supervisors give preferential treatment to the students from their countries by way of extra hours and favorable work positions whilst the Jamaicans suffer. Complaints to sponsors typically fall on deaf ears. Most Jamaican students report that they receive better treatment at their second jobs (usually a store or fast food restaurant) but stay with their primary job either because it is attached to their housing or because their second job is unwilling to go through the process of assisting them with documentation to return the following year.
As the students are interested in earning, many work long hours that are almost unheard of in our society – standing for thirteen hours with only one-hour break is hardly a part of our culture. However, when the students are ready to collect their earnings, some of their hours are magically missing, resulting in less pay as they are paid hourly. A student of the University of the West Indies reported that after he had been on training for almost three weeks at a New Jersey restaurant, the owner claimed he “had no knowledge of him working there” and threatened to call the police when he inquired about his paycheck.
Not all the students humbly deal with these realities. Some female students eagerly seek out older Caucasian men (fewer male students seek women) to supplement their paychecks, while some males focus on other illegal ventures.
The work and travel programme provides unprecedented opportunities for learning and financing of tertiary education. However, many workers returned this summer having suffered, while some may have caused country to suffer. For all the good the programme may do, it is not the bed of roses many of us picture ‘foreign’ to be, and some Jamaican students may cause it to be even worse for future workers.