More Abuses Alleged in the Summer Work Travel Guestworker Program

By David North on September 13, 2023

Usually, the abused foreign workers in the State Department’s Summer Work Travel program complain of low wages, long hours, and other economic abuses.

And, if there is any sexual abuse charged, the perp is a male.

Then there is the case of Celine Loh Xiao Han et al v. InterExchange Inc. in the federal district court for the southern district of New York, in which in addition to the usual economic abuses found in this program Han said her Shelter Island (N.Y.) employer, Marie Eiffel:

routinely sexually and physically assaulted Plaintiffs during the times they worked there. ... Marie’s actions included (1) constantly spanking employees on the buttocks while they were alone, in front of other employees, and even in front of customers, (2) groping female employees’ bodies including their breasts, and (3) kissing employees. ... Marie also wrapped her hands around the neck of and choked multiple employees. ... Marie acted as though she believed that such egregious behavior was funny. On at least one occasion, Marie ordered an employee to record her spanking an employee on the buttocks with a bunch of parsley while she laughed at the camera, as evidenced in the photo below.

The text above in taken from p. 12 of the complaint which was filed on September 5 in the PACER files (case no. 1:23-cv-07786-JRL) Document 13.

Then — unusually — there is a photo published within the complaint. It shows a woman laughing uproariously while holding parsley in her hands — but there are no buttocks or foreign workers to be seen. Odd.

Another strange element in the complaint are the frequent references to the New York City Human Rights Law; Shelter Island, where the violations took place, is not within the city limits, though the State Department-approved agency, InterExchange, is. Just because that outfit is in New York, does it mean that its clients (if any) in, say, Texas are covered by New York City legislation? A happy thought, but an unlikely one.

Further, the case is filed in the southern district federal court of New York, not in the eastern district where the abuse occurred.

The case is filed against both InterExchange, and Marie Eiffel owner of the Market on Shelter Island, N.Y. InterExchange is identified in the complaint as having an office at 100 Wall Street, New York City, it is also in the au pair business.

The plaintiff also made the all-too-common charges of economic exploitation in these cases; the complaint says:

In addition, Defendants engaged in wage theft by illegally failing to pay portions of Plaintiffs’ hard-earned wages and withholding Plaintiffs’ tips in violation of the N.Y. Labor Law.

Han and the seven other plaintiffs are from various Third World nations. All signed up with the Summer Work Travel program, which promises an immersion in American culture “while setting off travel costs” through moneys earned in the program. In other words, they paid their own way to these unattractive jobs. They were (or are) here on J-1 visas issued by the State Department.

That program was subject to a searing set of articles a few years ago by my then colleague and good friend Jerry Kammer. He pointed out at the time that the State Department has no U.S.-based structure to monitor these programs. The Shelter Island case suggests that the problems he identified a decade ago are still very much with us.

I note that no government agencies are, as yet, involved in this dispute. Neither the State Department nor state or federal labor agencies are noted as investigating the matter. The plaintiffs have two law firms on their side, Kalmanson Cohen PLLC of New York City and Lewis Johs Avallone Aviles LLP of Islandia, Long Island.

Geographic Footnote. Shelter Island is an island at the eastern end of Long Island, sheltered because it is between the northern and southern forks of the larger island; it is reachable by a ferry from the main island. Long Island looks like a fish, with its head in Brooklyn, and its seemingly split tails embracing Shelter Island some hundred or so miles further east. The ferry to Shelter Island docks a few miles north of the fabled Hamptons.