May 13, 2020
Hundreds of Exploited Filipino J-1 Workers Denounce Abandonment by Philippine Government, Recruiters and Visa Sponsors
On May 13, hundreds of abandoned J-1 workers of the national J-1 Workers Network held a press conference to vent their frustrations on the Philippine government’s inadequate response to their plight. After waiting three weeks with no response to an open letter sent to the Philippine government appealing for support, protection and accountability, the Network requested a meeting with the Philippine Embassy. The embassy finally responded, denying their request for a follow up meeting. Through the press conference, J-1 workers shared stories about their sudden termination due to the COVID-19, as well as the hardships they faced even before the pandemic.
Many J-1 workers faced immediate termination as a result of business closures due to the pandemic. Mary Lee Camello, a J-1 worker based in Hot Springs, Virginia, stated, “It started with the sudden termination of J-1 workers. We were only informed verbally through a phone call while others heard through video chat or from their co-workers.” Left without income, and still indebted because of steep program fees, she and her co-workers reached out to their visa sponsors and Philippines-based recruitment agencies. They advised them to return home despite not even having money for a plane ticket back.
In early April, Filipino J-1 workers like Camello came together and formed the J-1 Workers Network, bound together by the shared experiences they have had. “We formed the Network to provide support to each other and to voice out our concerns,” said Jathniel Caballero, a member of the Network based in Dallas, Texas.
After receiving the Philippine Embassy’s refusal to meet with the Network, Kris Canlas, a J-1 worker based in Davenport, Florida said, “We have reached out multiple times. They always say, ‘send us your contact information and narrative of your experience.’ Their response is repetitive, as if they are just prolonging the process.” She continued, “They also always point out that our request for funds will still be evaluated, meaning there is still no guarantee that we will receive help from them.”
Even before the pandemic, many J-1 workers were receiving little to no cultural exchange and their host companies would not follow their internship and training plans, despite these being promises of the J-1 program. Many were already experiencing violations, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Sheena Reyes from Dallas shared, “They would make us work all around in different departments and stations, sometimes with no breaks, and then they would change our time cards so they would not have to pay for all our hours. Some would give us false write-ups and twist the story. And worst of all, we were being intimidated because we have no right or power to speak for ourselves. There were threats that if we keep speaking up against the discrimination and harassment, that we would be sent back home to the Philippines.”
Nap Pempeña of Migrante USA, a supporting organization of the Network, emphasized the systematic export of Fiipino labor by the Philippine government as a big factor that makes young students vulnerable to trafficking. “The inadequate government support and the stories of exploitation bring up the long-standing problem in the Philippines where migrant workers are seen as a commodity to be sold and to be profited from,” Pempeña asserted. “And now, even our youth are being funneled into this labor export scheme through these exploitative internships and work-study programs abroad.”
Speaking to this profit-driven industry, J-1 workers outlined the steep recruitment fees they had to pay to the recruitment agencies, as well as other illegal business practices. Jorizza Garcia from Dallas recounted, “When we were at the local agency’s office back in Manila, we were told by the personnel to sign the page where our parent or guardian was supposed to sign. They even instructed us to tell the embassy during our visa interview that we only paid $3,500 to the recruitment agency even though we paid more than that.”
Community supporters across the country have been supporting hundreds of J-1 workers not only by assisting them with their immediate needs, but also through know-your-rights trainings, legal assistance and education on trafficking. Aurora Victoria David of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns stated, “It is also important to empower the J-1 workers. That the J-1 workers know and understand that they have rights, and that they can make informed decisions based on knowledge of their rights and options.”
“Ang kabataan ang pag-asa ng bayan (the youth is the future of our nation),” ended Camello, quoting a famous Tagalog phrase. “We do believe in ourselves that we will be able to contribute something good for the betterment of our country. But how can we do that if there’s no support given by our government?”