How the U.S. Benefits from the Summer Work and Travel Program
When universities go on break for the summer, college students from the United States usually go on vacations, travel or rest. Many students from the rest of the world travel as well, but they have other various options. For example, the students can come to the United States on visas that allow them to work in the country for three to four months during their break from university.

Summer Work and Travel Program

The program that allows students to come and work in the U.S is called the Summer Work and Travel Program. This program is under the broader J-1 visa category. Initially introduced as a cultural exchange program, it started in 1961 with the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. The J-1 type visa exchange is meant to encourage the “the interchange of persons, knowledge, and skills, in the fields of education, arts and science.” Over the last 10 years, over 310,000 individuals from 200 countries have visited the U.S. through the program.

What the Program Means for Participants

The students who choose to participate in the program are really serious about it. It requires a good deal of dedication to the process, some serious preparation and a considerable investment of funds to be able to apply for a visa. The requirements that participants need to meet include English language proficiency, full-time enrollment in a post-secondary educational institution and a secured job offer prior to traveling.

Toni Kovachev is a student from Bulgaria who has been to the United States three times as a J-1 participant. “Working in the states can be described as exhausting but having a lot of fun at the same time,” Kovachev shares with The Borgen Project. The decision to participate in the program came with his choice of a higher education institution.

Kovachev needed to find the means to be able to attend the American University in Bulgaria, a private liberal arts college, and the Summer Work and Travel Program made that possible. During his time in the U.S., he has been able to earn enough money for his tuition and improve his English language skills. Kovachev says, “It was a choice that changed my life and I am so glad that it happened that I went three summers already.”

The Summer Work and Travel program is an opportunity for international students to share their culture with different people and experience U.S. society and culture. These exchange of ideas, stories and ways of life are enriching for both sides. Being exposed to people from different backgrounds generates respect, understanding and tolerance towards others.

How the U.S. Benefits From Summer Work an Travel Program

Over the last two years, the program has been under scrutiny and criticism. The disapproval comes from the fear that visitors take job opportunities away from American youth. But these criticisms are misguided. J-1 students supplement the local economy during seasonal peak times or when American workers are not available. They help businesses to be more productive by being able to offer more and better services.

The students who obtain their visas to work in the U.S. for the summer usually occupy seasonal jobs in the hospitality sector. The majority of them are concentrated in the Southeast of the U.S. with Massachusetts and New York hosting the most J-1 students. Martha’s Vineyard, Provincetown and Nantucket experience an influx of visitors and tourists over the summer. Without international students cleaning hotel rooms, busing tables in restaurants and restocking supermarkets, businesses in those places would not be able to keep it up.

The program is beneficial for both the countries of origin of the J-1 students as well as the United States. A report commissioned by the Alliance for International Exchange shows that the majority of participants come to the U.S. to experience and learn about the way of life that then results in their positive opinion regarding the United States.

Almost all students reported that they believe they have obtained skills that would help them in the future. To add to that, 92.1 percent of employers agreed that the Summer Work and Travel Program participants improved the workplace. The estimated contribution of J-1 students to the economy in 2016 was around $509 million.

– Aleksandra Sirakova
Photo: Flickr

 Bangladesh
In April 2013, Rana Plaza — an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh — collapsed, killing 1,130 people. The structure housed a number of North American and European brands, including Benetton, Bon Marche, The Children’s Place and Joe Fresh. Bangladesh has the second largest garment industry in the world, valued at $28 billion and ranked just behind China, although it has the lowest wages globally for garment workers.

The disaster, considered to be one of the worst industrial tragedies in history, has led to a call for increased accountability and transparency in the clothing industry. While agreements such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh have been put in place in the aftermath of the accident, there are still steps the garment industry can take to repair its broken system.

Companies such as H&M, Walmart and Gap have voiced their interest in improving conditions, yet progress has been a slow and difficult process.

The Building

The Rana Plaza building, based in the Dhaka District, was owned by Sohel Rana, who constructed the factory in 2006 with his father. It was created from poor quality construction materials, while heavy, vibrating machinery operated within its walls. The ground that the building had been set upon had previously been a body of water and was swampy, containing rubbish.

When Rana was developing the structure, the upper floors were added illegally, without a permit, and the creation was not made in consent. Inspection teams found cracks in the building on the Tuesday before, but workers were ordered to return to the unsafe environment the following day. That morning, the factory collapsed, with over 3,000 people inside.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the incident, workers protested and coalitions came together to promote rights within the garment industry and take measures towards preventing a future crisis like Rana Plaza. On May 15, 2013, brands, retailers and trade unions — such as Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Fruit of the Loom — signed a five-year, legally binding agreement to create safer conditions in the Bangladesh Ready Made Garment industry, drafting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The Accord includes an inspection program, as well as the establishment of the right of workers to refuse unsafe work. Funds will be made available to repair any damaged equipment, and all corrective action plans and inspection reports will be publically disclosed.

Most recently, new signatories have continued to show solidarity for the Transition Accord, which extends the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh until after 2018.

Organizations, Brands and Change

In addition, a nine-member coalition including Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Rights Forum created the Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge, which demands that companies report on manufacturing sites and pertinent details twice a year.

The Follow the Thread Campaign, a coalition consisting of organizations such as Clean Clothes Campaign and Human Rights Watch, asked retail companies to sign a Transparency Pledge in April 2017.

Brands such as H&M, Walmart and Gap affirmed that they would like to participate in improving worker safety in Bangladesh. While Walmart did not sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the company was one of the founding members of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a group of 28 retailers that holds standards and inspections, as well as supporting worker empowerment, among other practices.

Commitment to Transparency

Yet these initiatives have not been enough. Reports by the coalition the Asia Floor Wage Alliance show that many garment buildings in Bangladesh do not have adequate fire exits. According to 2015 research from New York University’s Stern School of Business, out of 3,425 inspections in Bangladesh that were held after the collapse, only eight addressed their violations fully enough to pass final inspections.

A commitment to transparency still remains a vital aspect of progress needed in the garment industry. Workers frequently experience abuse, while earning low wages, with Bangladesh’s minimum wage being 32 cents per hour.

Facing the powerful impact of the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, corporations and unions have come together to try to address the dangerous conditions found in Bangladesh’s garment industry (which is one of the world’s biggest). But for factories to move forward, businesses and human rights organizations will have to confront the negligence found within the system and recognize that fashion is not worth such a costly price.

We, as a globe, will need to see increased accountability and responsibility in the manufacturing places of clothing companies to learn from Rana Plaza and see workers’ conditions sustainably improve.

– Shira Laucharoen

Photo: Flickr

Opportunity International: Fighting Poverty Through Job Creation
The nonprofit organization Opportunity International is fighting poverty through job creation. Its goal is to create and sustain 20 million jobs by the year 2020 in an effort to end global poverty.

Founded in 1971 by Al Whittaker and David Bussau, Opportunity International helps people in developing countries work their way out of poverty by providing them with small business loans, savings accounts, insurance and training. The organization was one of the first nonprofits to identify benefits in offering financial services to people in developing countries living in poverty. They have clients in 24 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Opportunity International goes by the motto “Opportunity Changes Everything.” They suggest that the traditional method of fighting poverty can lead to a vicious cycle. Donations of food, money and other basic needs improve lives, but only temporarily. Once the donation is used up, people’s needs return and the cycle starts again. The organization proposes that providing people with access to small business loans, savings accounts, insurance and training can change their lives for good.

Ninety-five percent of Opportunity’s loans go to women because, they say, women are poor in disproportionately greater numbers than men. To be eligible for a loan, a person joins a trust group and undergoes four to eight weeks of training to learn how to create a business plan, how to budget and how to save money. The trust group members take a pledge to guarantee each other’s loans and support one another’s businesses. This means that if one member of the group misses a weekly payment, the rest of the group has to cover it. This approach has led to 98 percent of loans being repaid and has proven to be an effective grassroots approach to tackling poverty.

According to the organization, the method that they use leads to a cycle that is different from the traditional method of fighting poverty. A woman grows a business, which increases her income. She is then able to feed her family nutritious meals, improve their housing, put money away in a savings account and purchase insurance from Opportunity to reduce her family’s risk. At the same time, she is able to hire her neighbors, giving them a chance to provide for their families. This system also transforms the community, hence their motto “Opportunity Changes Everything.”

Opportunity International’s strategy of fighting poverty through job creation has made an impact. The total amount of loans given is $838 million, they have 4.9 million clients with savings accounts and have supported 16.7 million jobs.

Kristin Westad

Photo: Flickr