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Foreign Student Workers Complain of Low Wages, Exploitation

A State Department-run cultural exchange program that promises foreign students good wages and a chance to improve their English is used by employers to fill labor needs cheaply and is a windfall for recruiters, according to a report issued Tuesday on the program.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a report based on interviews with participants, said students and their families went into debt from participation fees. Students reported to the center they were paid less than minimum wage, overcharged for housing and had little chance for cultural opportunities.

The report was based on four years of interviews with "hundreds" of participants and triggered by calls from participants to the center while it was reviewing other visa worker programs, said spokeswoman Apreill Hartsfield.

Christian Llontop Beccerra, 21, of Lima, Peru, borrowed $3,500 to work at housekeeping at a large resort in 2011. He employer was a Buloxi, Miss. resort contractor who paid $4.75 a room he cleaned. He could earn $9 a room if he managed to do 16, but Llontop said he could only get to 12 or 13 each day.

Meanwhile he and three roommates were charged $300 a month for a 2-bedroom, one bathroom house with two flea-infested beds. The house had no telephone, Internet or television.

"I didn't get anything back from this money," Llontop said.

Students have little recourse for complaints because the State Department has little authority to sanction employers, the report states. Also, employers aren't required to first try to recruit U.S. citizens before hiring the J-1 workers.

State Depatment spokeswoman Susan Pittman said the agency has been reviewing the report, working to improve and strengthen the program and takes action when needed.