SWT in Alaska: Fish Sliming as Cultural Exchange

By Jerry Kammer on December 15, 2011

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Jerry Kammer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

At a job fair in Ukraine in 2009, representatives of Alaskan seafood processing plants were blunt about what they wanted from the Summer Work Travel workers they were about to hire.

“We’re looking for hard workers who are not afraid to work every single day, up to 16 hours a day,’’ said Sarah Russell of Leader Creek Fishing in the village of Nakenak. “You will make a lot of money in a very short period of time and you won’t spend it anywhere because there’s really nothing to do in Nakenak, other than work.”1

Said Branson Spears, who was recruiting workers for plants in Sitka and Craig, “It’s going to be a lot of hard work. It’s going to be long hours. It’s going to be wet and cold. It won’t always be fun, but it’s fun sometimes.”

On its website recruiting workers for the same jobs, the Kazakhstan Council for Educational Travel is no less blunt, saying the job requires a willingness to “work 16 hours a day, seven days a week for cleaning, cutting, and packaging of frozen fish … . Able to endure four months of harsh climate of Alaska and the absence of any entertainment.”2

And a comment in the “Work and Travel” forum on the website of one of the Turkish recruiting agencies issues this warning: “Alaska is not for everyone – must be able to endure cold, odors, blah.”3

Despite those warnings, the Alaskan jobs are popular among students from Ukraine and many other countries who want the work. At a second job fair in Ukraine, processing plant owner John Kelly identified the reason. “What does fish smell like?” he asked rhetorically, brandishing a wad of dollars. “So if you want to smell like fish, come and see us.”4

Appeals like that are persuasive to young men like Petyo Minchev, who studies tourism at a Bulgarian university. He was grateful for a job that required him to work eight hours of straight time followed by eight hours of overtime on a seafood processing ship anchored just offshore in Dutch Harbor.

“Almost all the people in Bulgaria make very little money,” he explained. A factory worker might be paid a monthly wage of $300. So he jumped at the opportunity in Alaska and shrugged off the routine he described as: work 16 hours, shower, eat, sleep for six hours, repeat. He lived aboard the ship Northern Victor from the middle of June until late August, seldom going ashore. “Even if you go on the land, there is nothing to do in Dutch Harbor,” said Petyo. He is one of about 70,000 Bulgarians who have worked in the SWT program over the past decade.

The Vanishing Americans

Laurie Fuglvog of the Alaska Department of Labor offers a concise summary of the growth of the SWT program in her state’s seafood processing plants. She said the students began coming in the late 1990s, when the traditional summertime flow of college workers from “the lower 48” states had slowed.

“Maybe they could make more money somewhere else or maybe there were less people who grew up doing manual labor,” she said. “Then someone started thinking about the J-1s. And then it became the normal thing.”

The person most responsible for the transformation is Brian Gannon, who brought over the first J-1 students – from Russia – in 1998 when he was helping to run a seafood processing plant on Kodiak Island. Before long, Gannon began working as a contractor for other plants, where managers had learned of his success in drawing SWT workers.

On a recruiting trip to Polish universities, Gannon met Rick Anaya of the Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA). At the time CETUSA’s income came from matching American families with foreign students who came to school in the United States.

Tapping Gannon’s enthusiasm for SWT and his Alaska connections, CETUSA began a decade of rapidly expanding involvement in the program. In 2010, CETUSA’s 5,637 SWT participants outnumbered its high school students by more than six to one. About 2,000 SWT participants went to Alaska fish processing plants. Over the previous decade its revenues grew from $2.3 million to $7.6 million.

Gannon said the growing SWT program filled a void caused by young Americans’ declining interest in Alaskan jobs, which he tracked as a processing plant manager. He attributes it to an attitudinal shift that began with the “millennials,” those born after 1980. He was trying to recruit them in the late 1990s, when they were of college age.

“I think that was the golden age of the entitlement population,” said Gannon. “I don’t think people want to enter the workforce at a low level anymore. I think there’s a sense of, ‘I’m entitled to have a management position and I’m not willing to work to get there.’ It’s a generational thing.”

Gannon contrasts the experience of recruiting American college students with the response he receives overseas.

“I can spend a thousand dollars and go to the University of Montana, set up a table, spend some money to advertise in the campus newspaper, and end up begging to sign up two or three people,” he said. “I have done that numerous times. But if I go to the Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, China – any of the 28 countries I’ve recruited from – these kids are begging me for an opportunity. They’re telling me they will be the best worker I have ever seen.”

Gannon says that in his job as CETUSA’s director of business development he now places workers in 30 seafood processing plants that stretch across an 1,800-mile coastal arc from the Aleutian Islands eastward and southward to Ketchikan. He said he has about 95 percent of the SWT seafood business in Alaska.

But Gannon’s success in expanding the franchise of the State Department’s SWT program has brought it into a thus-far subdued clash with some staff at the Alaska Department of Labor, whose official mission is to “foster and promote the welfare of the wage earners of the state and improve their working conditions and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.”5

Dissent at the Alaska DOL

Brad Gillespie of the DOL criticized the SWT program to Alaska public radio reporter Daysha Eaton, questioning whether it was working as it is supposed to. “If it is working the way it was intended, it’s having a negative impact on U.S. and Alaskan workers. If you’re in a rural community that’s got a plant or two and that’s one of the major employers there and they’re bringing in all outside workers, there’s got to be an impact on those individuals not being able to get on at those plants,” Gillespie said.6

Gillespie declined to be interviewed for this report. But one of his colleagues did speak, asking that he not be named. “It’s a bad thing,” he said bitterly. “I get calls from Americans in other states every day begging for cannery jobs, and we’ve got canneries where none of the workers even speaks English.”

An SWT critic on Kodiak Island who is eager to go on the record is Monte Hawver, who runs the Brother Francis Homeless shelter there. Hawver is upset on several fronts, from the living conditions of the foreign students, to the incentives SWT provides for local canneries to bypass American workers, to what he calls the devastating financial consequences for local families forced to seek assistance from social service agencies.

Hawver says that in an industry subject to the vagaries of the catch, employers jump at the opportunity to reduce payroll costs by hiring SWT workers and taking advantage of the exemption on Social Security, Medicaid, and federal unemployment taxes.

“They are saving 8 percent on the wages of every one,” said Hawver. “So you take that and multiply it by 100 people and by whatever hours they’re working. Over a whole summer that’s a sizable amount of money.”

Hawver said he became aware of the system because of the habit of the J-1 workers – many of them from Turkey – to buy a bike. “If you take a ride after supper and you see dozens of bikes parked out front of a cannery, they might as well put a sign up that says ‘Turks only’.”

The consequences for local families were devastating this year, when the pink salmon run was well below expectations. The Kodiak Daily Mirror reported that even many of the guest workers were struggling. Hawver said incomes for some local families were wiped out. “They’ve got nothing to eat. This is whole families I’m talking about. It especially strikes me in the gut when a mother calls me up and says can she bring down her kids so we can feed them.”

Hawver is angry at the fish processing plants. He is also angry at the federal government for what he sees as a program that is blind to the suffering it is causing for Americans. “They call this cultural exchange. That’s bullshit,” he said. “Excuse my language.”

Defending SWT

Gannon makes two points in response. First, he did not bring the Turks to Kodiak. Second: Kodiak is not representative of the overall situation in Alaska.

“I refuse to believe that we are doing a disservice to this economy,” he said. “If we were not filling these jobs – we being the Summer Work and Travel industry that has developed – these jobs simply would not be filled in Alaska. And if you can’t find a workforce you can’t produce… . Every year the jobs are posted at the Alaska Department of Labor and at the job centers in Anchorage and in Southeast Alaska and in Kodiak. And no offense to the people who show up there, but you get some of the dregs of society. You get meth heads who are looking for another score and you get the people that last a week on the job. Domestic recruiting for production work is very hard. You can spend a lot of money on recruiting and start going backwards.”

So Gannon, the founder of the program, has continued to build it, convinced of its value. In November of 2011 he was planning to lead recruiting tours to some of the countries that have built the wave – Russia, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine – as well as to some countries whose potential is only beginning to be developed including China, Mongolia, Slovakia, and Kazahkstan. “I will be putting employers in front of workers from probably 20 countries,” he said.

Gannon’s frustrations with domestic recruiting are echoed by Mandy Griffith, of Silver Bay Seafoods in Sitka. Griffith says flatly that she would prefer to fill her jobs with Americans. “I’m a believer in trying to keep the jobs domestic,” she said. “But I’ve tried it and we just didn’t seem to get the interest. Then when we went to Poland, I spoke to over 2,000 students at events we arranged with our agent over there.”

The Decline of the Minimum Wage

While there are many differing views about the willingness of the current generation of American young people to work, one fact about the work itself is undeniable. It simply doesn’t pay nearly as well as it did in the decades when a summer job in Alaska was considered a prize for American college students. But the prevailing wage in seafood processing and many other SWT jobs is the minimum wage, and that level of income hasn’t come close to keeping up with inflation.

In 1969, when Hillary Clinton was sliming fish, the minimum wage in Alaska was $2.10. But, because of inflation, what $2.10 could buy in 1969 costs $12.98 in 2011. Meanwhile the Alaskan minimum wage in 2011 was $7.75. That means even the time-and-a-half scale that is so attractive to J-1 workers doesn’t have the buying power that the minimum wage had in 1969.

Moreover, the SWT program’s tax exemptions provide foreign workers with a built-in salary booster, increasing their advantage over young Americans.

After taking over management of the Exchange Visitor Program in the summer of 2011, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Rick Ruth indicated some concern about the appropriateness of fish processing in Alaska for a cultural exchange program. Reminded that the work is attractive to many young foreigners despite its isolation and long hours, he said, “It is very attractive. But just as the Summer Work Travel program was not created to provide cheap employment for American employers, it was also not created to be a get-rich program for foreign students.”

Ruth was careful not to talk about specific changes that he was contemplating. But he offered some thoughts about the direction he wants the program to take:

Summer Work Travel is under the State Department because it is supposed to be a cultural, educational experience for the participants. Work is its middle name. Work allows the participants to defray the costs of travel. That has always been seen as a worthwhile tradeoff, partly because it allows for large numbers to come, partly because it allows us to address a demographic that would not otherwise have the financial means to come to the United States.

A little later he added this:

I want to be sure that Summer Work Travel looks to you and me and any outsider like a genuine cultural experience. And to the extent that there are individuals who would seek to have it be something else or use it for another purpose, that is something I have to address through reforms, through rules, through clarifications of policy, to try to preserve the core intent of Summer Work Travel.

Young Thais Burnish Resumes with "Work Trah Vuhl"

In the summer of 2011, when the Council for Educational Travel USA CETUSA) was barraged with criticism for placing SWT participants in strenuous jobs at a Hershey Co. warehouse in Pennsylvania, it defended itself by producing messages from placement agencies in Thailand clamoring for those very jobs.

“We have good experience (at the Hershey plant) for couple of years and we expect to do well in recruiting appropriate students for them,” wrote a representative of Click Education, a student exchange agency whose motto is “Your Bright Future Is Our Goal.”

At the same time, Click Education’s webpage was promoting a variety of SWT jobs for the spring of 2012. The offerings included work at McDonald’s restaurants in Alaska, New Mexico, Colorado, and New York; a supermarket in Las Vegas; and amusement parks in Kansas and St. Louis.

Such work would be mundane to young Americans, but Click Education was selling American excitement. The webpage showed young Thais posing in New York’s Times Square, with background music was from American electro pop star Ke$ha, who sang: “Tick Tock on the clock, but the party don’t stop, no!”

The popularity of SWT has surged in Thailand, where many ambitious university students regard a minimum wage job in the United States as a way to polish their resumes. Their American peers may think that an unpaid internship is the way to impress future employers, but Thais relish the chance to work in the United States, improve their English, demonstrate their ambition, and see some sights.

“Most of us actually chose to work at McDonald’s,” Jiratchaya Intarakhumwong told the Global Post. “Employers will at least see that I could make it in America ... and that I’ve got some language skills.” The article said the program is “fueled by Bangkok’s upper-middle class families” who eagerly send their children on the program even though many take a financial loss.”

“Thai students often describe their fast food tours of America in romantic terms, as a rite of passage and a rare opportunity to work and live among Americans,” Global Post reported. “Bookstores devote whole shelves to ‘work travel' guides,” and SWT has been taken into the Thai language as “work trah VUHL.”

During their stint working at the McDonald’s inside Pittsburgh’s airport, Jiratchaya and her friends, described in the story as “students at some of Thailand’s most elite universities,” were earning the minimum wage and “bunked three-deep in a run-down Best Value Inn room.”

The story described it as “an immigrant’s life.” But the experience apparently paid off for Jiratchaya, who returned home to find work as a service representative at the upscale Sofitel Hotel.

Here are links to Thai SWT sites:





And links to Youtube videos of Thai SWT participants:




Recruiting In Thailand for 2012

In September 2011 the smartworldasia.com website was recruiting Thai students as workers for a broad range of employers. It advertised openings at Six Flags Magic Mountain near Los Angeles; the Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab, Utah; the Econo Lodge in Wisconsin Dells; a Dunkin' Donuts in Mechanicsburg, Pa.; a Wendy’s in Thorndale, Pa.; a Dollar Tree retail store in Harrisburg, Pa.; a Quik Stop convenience store in Cherokee, N.C.; and a GAP store in Foley, Ala. The wages were all in the range of $7.25 to $8.25 per hour. There was also a night club in Detroit that was offering work at $2.65 an hour plus tips. In December the site was recruiting for a Vitality International retail store in Las Vegas; a Popsy Pop ice cream sales job in New Jersey; Publix supermarkets in Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama; and GAP stores in Alabama and Florida.

YouTube and Facebook: Telling the SWT Story to an Eager World

Recruitment of SWT participants functions through a powerful combination of the efforts of dozens of U.S. sponsoring organizations and their hundreds of partners around the world. Their robust Internet presence is fortified by hundreds of YouTube videos and dozens of Facebook pages. Sometimes the efforts are slick and commercial; sometimes they are home-made and personal. All of them spread the word of SWT, steadily enlarging the universe of potential fee-paying participants. Some examples are listed below.


Work and Travel USA: www.youtube.com/watch?v=duIpKgSbFBo

This well produced video features interviews with J-1 participants reflecting on their experience working as servers, lifeguards, and traveling. The video ends with clips of the party scene as young Russians energetically express their love for the program and experience. “WORK AND TRAVEL FOREVER!”

Work and Travel 2007: This Picture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0IQ4mnqrZk

A video journal captures seven Romanian girls and their experience living and working in Ocean City as well as traveling to the Big Apple.

Work And Travel USA, Turkish Students: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckEtSr1LwNA

“Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten,” are the sentiments of this young Turkish SWT participant who records his experience working and making new friends in America.

Alaska the Best: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORSBW2VynqM

This two-part video first provides accounts of his experience working at the Alaskan fishery plant. The second part shares his affinity with nature as he explores Alaska.

Icicle Seafoods 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FRoLYzcYPs

Icicle Seafoods’ promotional video is targeted to future international SWT prospects. The video provides a brief background of who Icicle Seafoods is, what they do, where they are located, as well as what’s expected from future employees.

“Arctic Star”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqwVywEASis

Personal video footage reveals the behind the scenes process at an Alaskan fishery as Americans and their foreign associates build rapport.

“Instructions for Use”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1x2PEshvPac

Created by the Center for International Exchange, this video is intended to promote CIE as the premier agency to use for future exchange prospects. This particular video explains how the American transportation bus system works.

“A fresh look from the inside”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg2P1ivIQZs

Russian SWT candidates reflect on their experience coming to America, providing insight to wages, responsibilities, and assimilating into American culture.

BBC interview: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=104549189612071

BBC follows five SWT students as they reflect on American norms and folkways. Despite challenges initially adjusting to American customs, SWT students are enthralled with American culture and the ideal of the American dream.

Work and Travel: http://www.youtube.com/user/workandtravelserbia

From the Work and Travel channel, this promotional video markets popular American landmarks to Serbian students.

Parties Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlWLVZcv5QI

Cooperative production of Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Russian SWT; students dancing, partying, and romancing.

Jolly Roger Amusement Park: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQ4ATVC8hbM

Energetic promotional video promoting the SWT program and Ocean City as the place to be in the summer of 2007

InterExchange: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUxMgrMoj-8

“Getting to Know Work and Travel” is the title of this promotional video that opens with footage of an InterExchange conference relaying practical advice to prospective SWT students. The video finishes with testimony of a Macedonian financial management student who spent her summer working in Cape Cod.

Say hello to Moldova 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmHrWpTvc7Y

Combination of stills and motion video of four Moldovan girls experiencing both working and traveling in the United States. Memorable moments, site seeing, and comradery building are captured.

www.icsmexico.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V75g5sxWTEI

This still frame montage reflects the unforgettable times these Mexican SWT students had. The video sells the program as a great way to earn money, improve one’s English, make lifelong friends, and gain valuable international work experience.

Work and Travel IE Peru: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34HQUD6xs4o

“An unforgettable experience” is promised to any Peruvian student who takes advantage of the Summer Work Travel program. As opposed to European or Russian SWT students, South American candidates are available from December to April.

Experiencia UNEPERU: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqfvXldwl8U

A young Peruvian reflects on the circumstances that led to him seeking the SWT program after attempts to obtain a tourist visa were denied. He speaks on his experience working in the housekeeping industry in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Thai Experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br6jQUMRKJs

Excited Thai students are anxious to share their positive experience working and especially traveling the United States. (short)

CCUSA Job Fair part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFUAJSumsYM

Melissa Hall, program director for CCUSA, and other CCUSA members introduce themselves and help facilitate SWT students' employment with small business participants in attendance. Employers include Six Flags Chicago, Yellowstone National Park, Copper Mountain Ski Resort, Phillips Seafood, and many others.

CCUSA Job Fair part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4yT3UDD5DA

More employers introduce themselves and communicate what they are looking for in a J-1 employee and how many workers they intend to hire. Brief synopsis of what each employer has to offer also attempts to soften the anxiety in the room and compete for applicants.

CCUSA and Thailand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBv7KsOSJQI

Melissa Hall motivates prospective SWT students to be excited about the program as she provides standard information regarding support groups and services that students should take advantage of before she introduces the participating employers. Hall clarifies that this job fair is only the beginning and not to be discouraged if any students don’t find a good fit.

CIP Ukraine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9lcyFa27WY

Center for International Programs claims to be one of the largest agencies in the industry. Still frame clips of the job fair covey the helpful and approachable nature of the staff as they assist Ukrainian students find employment in the United States.

YMCA and CICS Paraguay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZolt0MFnzA

The international YMCA and CICS promote the Summer Work Travel program expressing how fantastic the experience will be; layered with American pop music.

Brazil: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XVDwWdb5wg

Christian Avila and Marcel Lettnin communicate their experience in the Summer Work and Travel program via a continuous daily video journal coined “The Daily Exchange.” This episode focuses on them finding employment at the job fair.

Columbia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADTu1xiumy0

Job fair held in April 2011 offers SWT students same day interviews and logistical information regarding starting/ending dates, traveling, wages, and responsibilities.

U.S. Embassy Interview success: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBRY-ac4ID0&NR=1

This informative video provides essential information to prepare for a successful interview with the U.S. Embassy. Both minimum and supplemental requirements are listed, such as program stipends and foreign residency requirements.

Russian Conversation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5u-qPGd05Q&feature=related

Two former Russian SWT participants engage in conversation about the Do’s and Don’ts of the SWT program. Information about visas, interviews, and traveling are covered.

Work and Travel USA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdsXuUUwhrA

An interview with a participant in the program. Video provided by the agency "SWIMPLEX" Dnepropetrovsk (simplex.dp.ua)

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End Notes

1 Job fair hosted by employers recruiting through SWP sponsor, the Council for Educational Travel USA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DSrmqd24kA.

2 http://kcet.kz/ru/gray/ (translations by Google Translate).

3 http://www.workandtravel.com.tr/forum/alaska-balik-fabrikalari/168-icicl....

4 CETUSA job fair: http://wat.com.ua/videos.php. The job fair for Alaskan seafood processors is the third video in the series.

5 http://labor.state.ak.us/trends/feb97.pdf.

6 http://www.theworld.org/2011/08/why-alaskan-fish-processing-jobs-are-now....