Work and travel programme blues

The novel coronavirus’ economic impact is now being felt in the overseas work and travel programme as several placement agencies are having difficulty refunding fees to university students, since last year’s disruption of the annual project.

The programme, through which thousands of overseas tertiary students work in the United States for three to four months to pay their tuition, was grounded to a temporary halt following an executive order made by the Donald Trump Administration.

The work and travel programme cost to participants runs between US$900 and US$1,800.

Jamaica Union of Tertiary Students President Everton Rattray told the Jamaica Observer that the university students are concerned about the repayment process.

“Based on information received, some students have been getting their payout, but in very small amounts. That is where the challenge really lies right now,” said Rattray.

Three second-year students at Caribbean Maritime University who study logistics and supply chain management revealed that they have not yet received refunds from one of the placement agencies.

They claimed that they have been treated rudely by the operators at the agency who provide poor e-mail responses to their queries about refunds.

One of the students, who opted not to be named, told the Observer that she is now unable to repay a loan she took from a family friend and had to apply for a student loan to pay her tuition.

She explained that she paid a $6,000 registration fee, a US$100 job fair fee and US$1,600 programme fee.

“Whenever I ask questions I get a lot of attitude. An e-mail response in capital letters was the first instance. When I got another e-mail recently, it said, ‘We are still processing refunds, some persons have already received their refunds, so bear with us’. They can’t tell me when I am getting back my money,” she said.

Another student, who also asked not to be named, shared a similar plight. She noted that she has been facing financial challenges, as she used funds generated from her bar business to pay her fees.

“They [agency operators] say they are sending e-mails, but we hardly see any. I took the money from my business to go on the programme and I do not understand why we should be at fault when we didn’t cause the pandemic. I couldn’t even pay my school fee. I want back my money!” she said.

The third student, who, like her colleagues, requested anonymity, explained that the terms and conditions in the contract are ambiguous.

“They told me that if I deferred they would take $400 for cancellation, and $550 for visa denial if I did not get through at the embassy. That is more than half of the $1,600 I paid,” she said.

“They did not mention that, and even if I signed the paper to defer that would not have been mentioned until a later date. They don’t really communicate or state anything clearly because, based on how the contract is set up, you might assume it is saying one thing when it is actually saying another thing,” she added.

When the Observer contacted the Ministry of Labour and Social Security two weeks ago about the number of students who were affected and the monies owed, the newspaper was asked to send questions via e-mail. But up to Friday, March 26 no response was provided.

The Observer has leant that tertiary students pay programme fees to placement agencies which then make arrangements with several overseas sponsors for job placements across the US. However, due to stringent policies, overseas agencies do not provide refunds, but might offer a programme deferral option.

However, president of Jamaica Association of Employment and Cultural Exchange Charmaine Hutchinson said some placement agencies are having financial challenges which are beyond their control.

“Across the board, sponsors have not returned the funds to the agencies, so we have credits with them. So, how agencies have been handling it is by using income generated to start their refund process,” she said.

Hutchinson said that for the issue of credits, applicants who requested a programme deferral will not have to pay any additional fees this year.

Describing the situation as unfortunate, Hutchinson said: “Some agencies have been doing part payments to the participants. It is unprecedented and it is not the situation where any of the agencies would have funds and not give to students. That would be preposterous, and we would be throwing ourselves under the bus for no reason.”

Hutchinson, who is also the CEO at placement agency JOYST Youth Exchange International, pointed out that terms and conditions about refunds are outlined in contractual agreements which are signed with overseas sponsors annually.

“So, the terms and conditions we sign with the sponsors that is a part of it that you do not get a cash refund, you will get credit. It is not just for 2020, it generally happens but it was never a cause for concern before,” she said.

She added that JOYST started the refund process last year and explained that, “we are continuing as best as we can”.

Pointing out that there is a decrease in the number of participants for this year, Hutchinson is still encouraging students to participate in the programme.

“Take a chance. Do not give up on the opportunities that are out there for you. Take them up as COVID-19 is going nowhere. We have to manage our expectations. Students have to be courageous, be critical in their thinking, be objective and just be bold and take the steps. We have to function in a hopeful manner so that when students are ready to go, we are not caught offguard. Agencies are in the ready mode,” she said.

The newspaper also contacted a few overseas sponsors, but only one, called CENET, responded via e-mail.

CENET explained that for its candidates who opted not to participate in the programme last year, only $50 was retained per standard fee structure [which is stated on its website]. The sponsor added that many of its candidates cancelled prior to payment, leaving only three participants for the programme in 2020.

For this year, CENET said it is offering full refunds to candidates who cancel due to COVID-19. The agency said instances that would warrant a full refund include a lockdown of a candidate’s country, shutdown or limited services offered by the US Embassy in the candidate’s region, a US lockdown and a programme cancellation by the host employer.

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