Summer Work Travel Program:

State Department Has Taken Steps to Strengthen Program Requirements, but Additional Actions Could Further Enhance Oversight

GAO-15-265: Published: Feb 11, 2015. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 2015.

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Michael Courts
(202) 512-8980
courtsm@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

Each year, college and university students from all over the world participate in the Department of State's (State) Summer Work Travel (SWT) program. State records show that in 2014, about 79,000 participants from more than 120 countries worked up to 4 months in jobs such as lifeguard, cashier, and resort worker throughout the United States (see map). Participants are meant to experience U.S. culture by interacting with Americans during work and through cultural activities in their free time. State administers the program in partnership with U.S. private sector sponsors that serve as participants' primary contacts. Program funding comes primarily from fees paid by participants and sponsors.

Summer Work Travel Program Participants' Countries of Origin, 2014

Summer Work Travel Program Participants' Countries of Origin, 2014

State has taken several steps to strengthen SWT requirements since 2010. For example, in 2011, State began requiring sponsors to verify employers and job offers and prohibited jobs such as adult entertainment and domestic help. State also capped the number of participants at 109,000 until it could determine that it had addressed identified concerns; as of October 2014, State had no plans for lifting the cap. State made further changes in 2012, such as requiring—in response to allegations of excessive participant costs—that sponsors annually submit lists of fees that SWT participants pay them and their overseas agents. State also required sponsors to provide participants cultural opportunities outside the workplace.

State oversees sponsors through both general and targeted reviews of their compliance with program requirements. State oversees participants' welfare by periodically interviewing a small number of participants and investigating complaints and reports from participants and others. However, State does not have mechanisms to ensure that sponsors submit complete and consistent lists of fees that participants pay them and their overseas agents and that this information is made publicly available. State thus has limited ability to protect participants from excessive and unexpected costs. Further, State officials told GAO that it cannot assess the sufficiency and appropriateness of participants' cultural opportunities outside the workplace because the 2012 requirement lacks detailed criteria. As a result, State cannot be assured that SWT participants' experiences of U.S. culture align with its public diplomacy goals.

Why GAO Did This Study

Created under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, the SWT program is intended to further U.S. public diplomacy by giving foreign undergraduate students short-term opportunities to experience the people and way of life in the United States. In 2005, GAO found that State's oversight was insufficient to prevent abuse of the SWT program or its participants. Since 2010, some misuses of the program by participants and criminal organizations and abuses of participants—for example, low wages and substandard living conditions—have been reported. Also, State has noted that the program's work component has often overshadowed its cultural component.

GAO was asked to report on State's oversight and implementation of the SWT program. This report examines, among other things, steps that State has taken since 2010 to strengthen program requirements as well as State's oversight of sponsors and participants. GAO reviewed program regulations and other SWT documents. GAO also interviewed U.S. officials and others involved in the program in the United States and in Bulgaria, Ireland, Turkey, and Russia, countries that GAO selected on the basis of factors such as the number of SWT participants from each country.

What GAO Recommends

State should establish mechanisms to ensure that sponsors submit complete and consistent lists of participant fees and that this information is made publicly available. State should also provide detailed criteria for assessing the sufficiency and appropriateness of participants' cultural opportunities. State agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Michael Courts at (202) 512-8980 or courtsm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to our recommendation that the State Department (State) establish a mechanism to ensure that sponsor provide complete and consistent lists of fees that exchange visitors on the Summer Work Travel program must pay, State acknowledged it collected such fee information in 2016. As of August 3, 2017, we are awaiting State's review and analysis of this information to ensure the price lists are consistent and comprehensive.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to protect SWT participants from abuse and the SWT program from misuse, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs to establish a mechanism to ensure that sponsors provide complete and consistent lists of fees that participants must pay.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to our recommendation that the State Department (State) establish a mechanism to ensure that information about Summer Work Travel participant fees is made publically available, State noted that it had published a notice for proposed rulemaking on January 12, 2017. When finalized, this would require would require each sponsor to include in its recruiting material, and post on its main Web site (e.g., with a visible link to such a page on the sponsor?s homepage), examples of the typical monthly budgets of exchange visitors placed in various regions of the United States to illustrate wages (based on the required weekly minimum of 32-hours of work at a typical host placement) balanced against itemized fees and estimated costs. Until State finalizes this rule, they cannot enforce this requirement. As of July 27, 2017, this information was not available to the public on the six sponsor websites we checked.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to protect SWT participants from abuse and the SWT program from misuse, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs to establish a mechanism to establish a mechanism to ensure that information about these participant fees is made publicly available.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to our recommendation that the State Department (State) establish detailed criteria that will allow it to assess the sufficiency and appropriateness of opportunities for cultural activities outside the workplace that sponsors provide to Summer Work Travel participants, State published a notice for proposed rulemaking on January 12, 2017. When finalized, this would require sponsors and their host entities to create cultural opportunities at least once per month. The proposed rule also notes that State will issue guidance outlining best practices for cross-cultural programming. As of July 27, 2017 this is not finalized.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to protect SWT participants from abuse and the SWT program from misuse, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs to establish detailed criteria that will allow State to assess the sufficiency and appropriateness of opportunities for cultural activities outside the workplace that sponsors provide to SWT participants.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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