A summer in the United States sounded perfect to Shu-ting "Sandy" Chang, especially after she read a sales pitch on the home page of the Boston-based Center on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), an organization that helps find jobs for international students.
"Every year, through CIEE's Work & Travel USA Program, thousands of students from around the world go home with so many stories to tell their friends and family," the Web site states. "Their stories reflect things they've learned, places they've been and the fun experiences they've had. These stories and unforgettable memories last a lifetime. What will YOUR story be?"
Chang chose a job at Six Flags St. Louis in Eureka. But her "story" had no happy ending. On August 20 the twenty-year-old literature student at National Central University in Taiwan packed her bags for home, quitting the program two weeks early disillusioned and disappointed.
"It was the wrong decision to come here," she says, citing unpredictable hours at the amusement park, expensive housing and pay so low that she was unable to recoup the $2,200 she spent traveling to St. Louis.
"Other people are even angrier than we are," adds Chang, referring to her three Taiwanese roommates who also worked at Six Flags.
"They [treat] us as slaves," says Mesut Saritemur, a twenty-year-old engineering student from Turkey and CIEE participant.
University students from some 40 countries have flocked to the U.S. since 1947 as part of CIEE's "Work & Travel" program. They generally spend between $1,000 and $2,500 on program and visa fees, insurance and a plane ticket before ever setting foot stateside. In exchange, CIEE and its partner firms in Europe, Asia and Latin America secure for students a "J-1" visa, allowing them to work up to four months and to travel for 25 days after their working papers expire.
The agencies also help the students find work through face-to-face interviews with employers or via the Internet. Nearly 30,000 students took part this year, working as attendants at national parks, waiters, chambermaids and department-store clerks, among other not-so-glamorous gigs across the country.
Six Flags St. Louis is one of 29 parks owned by New York City-based Six Flags Inc. The cash-strapped company, which this summer hosted 118 foreign student employees, has operated in the red for the past eight years and has a current debt of $2.1 billion, according to news reports. Last year, under new CEO Mark Shapiro, the 45-year-old entertainment firm began a push to reinvent its parks as family-friendly places rather than magnets for unruly teenagers.
Like other parks in the chain, the local Six Flags is a seasoned employer of internationals, having relied on foreign help for the past ten summers. The park puts students up in small, furnished apartments at the New Jefferson Arms, owned by Pyramid Cos., in downtown St. Louis. A private bus ferries them to and from work each day, where, for $6.25 an hour, they flip burgers, manage the lines at rides or haul trash. The park deducts from their weekly checks $70 for housing, $35 or more for transportation, and uniform fees. The average take-home income amounts to $150 a week.
Chang says the arrangement falls far short of the one in a program description that accompanied the one-page contract she signed last winter.
"We are more than compliant with everything in our contract," counters Elizabeth Gotway, spokeswoman for Six Flags St. Louis.
Elizabeth O'Neill, spokeswoman for CIEE, says the organization heard from a number of disgruntled students in July and sent a representative to St. Louis to investigate. O'Neill says CIEE will now re-evaluate Six Flags' compliance based on Chang's complaints.
Chang says the contract and program description are misleading and incomplete. For example, one of the possible jobs it cites is "host/hostess" at a park restaurant. Chang thought that meant she might seat or serve customers. Instead, she ended up as a deep-fryer in a cafeteria-style kitchen.
The program summary also states that students who worked for Six Flags last year lived "two to a room," and "with a private bath." Indeed, Chang and her fellow internationals did live "two to a room" at the New Jefferson Arms, but had to share the one-bedroom apartments with three roommates and paid nearly double the market rate.
As far as the transportation Six Flags promised in the program description, Chang says there was no mention that there would be only one bus a day going to and from the park. That meant the foreign workers had to sit around at the park for hours, waiting for their shifts to begin or for the evening bus to arrive.
Further, the international students complain of erratic scheduling and claim they lost out on hours to American workers in the beginning of the summer. In mid-August the park shuts down on weekdays, and it closes completely on October 29. "We can't make any money just on the weekends," says Saritemur, the Turkish student. As a result, he quit one month early.
Six Flags' Gotway contends that all of the foreign workers were offered more than the average number of hours 35 hours a week promised to them. She also says housing accommodations have actually improved. Two years ago, students lived in Pacific and complained that they had nothing to do during their free time. Last summer they resided in double-occupancy rooms at the Millennium Hotel.
"At least this way they've got the kitchenette with a stove and all that," Gotway says of the New Jefferson Arms.
The inflated rent can't be helped, says Gotway, explaining that Pyramid requires a six-month lease. "Since they're only here three or four months, the other two or three still have to be covered."
Foreign students have also voiced concern about other parks in the Six Flags family. In 2002 Brazilian, Costa Rican and Spanish workers at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, told the Asbury Park Press the park didn't provide 40-hour weeks as promised. The same year, Polish students working at Six Flags New England in Springfield, Massachusetts, reported to the Hartford Courant that they were forced to work 60-hour weeks and live in overpriced dormitories.
Gotway says that Six Flags St. Louis treats its foreign workers very well, going as far as helping some students find alternate housing or even second jobs outside the park. She adds that one former employee made enough money at the two jobs that he was able to return to his country and buy his family a bakery.
"The opportunities," says Gotway, "are so different here than in their homeland."
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