Students unhappy with size of cancellation fees for Overseas Work and Travel Programme

Observer writer

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

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The Jamaica Union of Tertiary Students (JUTS) says it has received complaints from more than 500 university students that placement agencies have charged them cancellation fees of up to US$600 after the annual Overseas Work and Travel Programme ground to a halt because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, the matter is scheduled to be discussed at a meeting between the agencies and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security today, JUTS President Everton Rattray told the Jamaica Observer.

“The cases will be investigated individually,” Rattray said.

The Observer became aware of the issue last week when third-year journalism student at The University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) Trina Williams revealed that one of the 15 overseas work and travel agencies listed on The UWI's website withdrew money from the fee she had paid to participate in the programme, despite the fact that the programme had been cancelled for this year.

“I lost US$450 of the US$1,600. My agency is saying that this is a mandatory withdrawal, even though it was not our fault,” Williams said.

University of Technology, Jamaica second-year accounting student Dominique Foreman shared a similar plight.

“My agency took US$200 from everybody and it was not in the contract. They just took a percentage for themselves. I don't know why, but I find it very unfair,” Foreman told the Observer.

Another tertiary student, who opted not to be named, also complained about the “unfair treatment” as she is now unable to repay a loan she took to participate in the programme because she is being refunded US$1,000 of the US$1,650 she had paid.

Yet another tertiary student, who also asked not to be named, told the Observer that she was refunded US$1,150 of the US$1,450 of the programme fee she had paid.

“I am very angry because I borrowed money from family, plus I had worked the entire Christmas season to help make up the fee. This is very unfair,” she said.

Hundreds of tertiary students go on the work and travel programme in the United States annually to earn money to pay their tuition. Each year, The UWI's Office of Placement and Career Services facilitates a number of agencies which assist students to find employment overseas for the summer.

Last month, United States President Donald Trump made an executive order cancelling the programme due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, many work and travel agencies have refunded only a percentage of fees, arguing that it was quite costly to process the applications.

Last week, when the Observer contacted one of the agencies listed on The UWI's website, a representative who answered the phone gruffly, told the newspaper that resources were utilised and the agency has bills to pay.

“If yuh nah go ask no sensible question nuh ask nutten, because rent haffi pay,” he said.

The situation is particularly dire for those students who borrowed money from loan agencies to pay the programme fee.

However, loan agency Tarpa Corporation Limited says it is willing to give consideration to the plight of its clients.

“Tarpa Corp has definitely made many provisions for our customers in light of the pandemic, as well as with the cancellation of the programme. We have reduced our rates and also extended payment periods for customers who have informed us that they are facing difficulties repaying. We have left no stone unturned,” the company said in an e-mail response to the Observer.

The agency's CEO and co-founder Nico Carridice added: “This is the time for us to all come together and work towards amicable solutions that would benefit all parties involved, and that will take a bit of compromise from everyone.”

Stating that it is not easy for most of the students who would usually depend on the money they make from the programme to pay their school fees, Carradice said, “I think even the universities should create accommodative payment plans and reduced fees for students in the coming semester.”

Meanwhile, JUTS has been advocating on behalf of the students who are suffering financial loss.

According to Rattray, a meeting was held with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security's Employment Unit last Thursday at which a number of issues were discussed and commitments made by the ministry.

“Placement fees are supposed to be maximum $45,000 and programme fees vary according to the sponsors that are used,” the JUTS president explained.

“The reality is that they should only charge you 25 per cent of the placement fee if you cancel. The 25 per cent of the placement fee is only $11,250. The ministry is committed to looking into each case that we have reported with their legal team and their inspectors to find out what is it that these agents are doing to make sure that if there are any malpractices they will revoke the licence from those agencies and ask them to refund,” he said.

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