Oliver Benzon worked in a call center for six months to pay a recruitment agency $3,000 for a chance to be hired as a chef at an Ocean City restaurant under a federal summer work program.

But when the Dominican Republic citizen arrived in Maryland, the restaurant hadn’t yet opened — and he and others were instead given work in construction, he said. To make matters worse, his supervisor later paid Benzon only a percentage of what he was owed, Benzon said.

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“He just said that I could take or leave the money he was offering me,” Benzon said. “We were treated like dirt because our supervisors knew we couldn’t complain.”

Benzon, who declined to name the restaurant because of ongoing legal proceedings, was one of the estimated 5,557 workers in Maryland who participated last year in the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program, one of the federal government’s largest cultural exchange programs.

The program, which the federal government promotes as a work opportunity for foreign students “to be exposed to the people and way of life in the United States,” lacks safeguards for the workers and relies on recruitment or “sponsor” agencies that profit from the program to oversee it, according to the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, a coalition seeking to end systemic abuse of workers recruited to the United States.

The program’s structure, labor advocates say, leaves its workers vulnerable to wage theft, retaliation, physical threats and human trafficking.

Meredith Stewart, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a member of the working group — which has represented thousands of workers with complaints. She called the exchange effort a “broken program — nothing more than a smokescreen for many U.S. employers to gain access to cheap employees.”

The U.S. State Department, which administers the program, has a 24-hour, toll-free hotline (866-283-9090) and email address (jvisas@state.gov) for reports of abuse and considers the safety and security of the workers “our first priority,” the agency said in a statement.

The State Department “has zero tolerance for any abuse and misconduct,” the statement said, and it takes seriously all reports about the health, safety or welfare of exchange participants. It said the department monitors sponsors’ programs to ensure they adhere to federal regulations. The Office of Private Sector Exchange Administration responds to incidents such as death, serious injury, sexual abuse, arrest of a worker, or a visa holder’s involvement in a serious crime as a victim or perpetrator.

“We expect sponsors to manage their designated programs in a manner detailed in the federal regulations and by sound business and ethical practices,” the agency said.

Roughly 16,000 companies, including Disney, Six Flags and McDonald’s, hire summer workers through the program each year.

Maryland employs one of the five largest J-1 workforces in the country. The top employers in the state include High Sierra Pools, Food Lion, Jolly Roger Amusement Park, McDonald’s and Seacrets Jamaica USA in Ocean City, according to the recruitment working group. Members of the working group include Centro De los Derechos Del Migrante, a Baltimore-based nonprofit dedicated to defending migrant workers’ rights.

The advocates say some employers use the program interchangeably with other seasonal work programs, such as the H2B visas, which allow Eastern Shore crab houses to hire crab pickers from Mexico for the summer. Those visas include a prevailing wage rule and other standards and require the employer to try to hire local workers first. Employers are exempt from paying state or federal taxes on their J-1 employees, advocates said.

If J-1 workers run into a problem, they typically are referred to their sponsor or recruitment agency, which profits from their placement in that job, creating “an absurd and obvious conflict of interest,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute.

Costa said the program is “fundamentally flawed.”

“It’s all very cozy and not at arm’s length,” he said. “There’s a lot the state department could do.”

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Shannon Lederer, director of immigration policy at the AFL-CIO, a national federation of union workers, said the J-1 program takes advantage of “temporary and vulnerable workers” who come to the country expecting a work and cultural opportunity backed by a federal government program.

“It’s not OK that they don’t earn living wages; it’s not OK that they don’t have health insurance," Lederer said. “It’s unacceptable to allow this program to persist without real oversight."

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