Imagine you want to travel to a foreign country to work with the locals. You link up with a company that promises to handle the specifics across the ocean. Everything sounds legit, so you kiss the family goodbye and hop the thousand-some miles for the big adventure.
But when you land in-country, it's nothing like what was advertised. You're dumped in small beach town. Instead of a comfortable bed, you're stuffed sardine-style with seven strangers into a single hotel room. It's a five-mile walk to work every day. The only authority figure around is sketchy. Would you feel trapped? Pissed? Scared?
For the 41 Bulgarian students who traveled to Destin this summer through a work-study program, it was all of the above.
According to the lawsuit the students recently filed upstate in Okaloosa County, Global Educational Concepts (GEC) told the foreigners they'd get quality accommodations. What was served up was steerage.
The Nashville-based company runs the student exchange through a U.S. State Department program. If an interested full-time student is 18, can jaw proficient English, and has $600, he or she is eligible for a three-month J-1 visa.
Between late 2011 and early 2012, GEC reps pitched that deal at Bulgarian universities, according to the students' lawyer, Tiffany Sullivan. GEC told the students they would have to pay $91 per week in addition to a $250 refundable deposit for a spot in a four-person apartment.
The company also said it would hook up each student with a 35-hour-per-week job at either a Winn-Dixie store or local motel. The housing would be near work, they were told, and cheap transportation and other assistance would be provided by a "housing manager."
But as Bulgarians began showing up in Destin last May, the set-up was straight gulag.
Some were packed eight-deep into single hotel rooms located miles from the workplace. Dirty mattresses served as bedding; others slept on the floor. The "housing manager" -- Andrew Shepitko -- overcharged the deposits and rent. Six students cramped in a small apartment were billed $3,492 for a two-week stay.
When some students tried looking for extra work after their hours were slashed, Shepitko said they had to hand over $2 for each hour they worked the other gig. He also charged them ridiculous sums for rides.
Both GEC and the companies employing the student were clued in to the terrible living conditions, Sullivan says. The students tried to shake loose some action from the sponsor, but the requests went unanswered. Many didn't want to push the issue.
"My experience with them was that the girls were very afraid and intimidated. The boys were very angry," Sullivan explains. "They all felt deceived. They were afraid to complain. They were afraid they'd get kicked out of whatever living situation they had."
The saga hit a terrible low point when 19-year-old Galina Bumbalova was killed by a drunk driver while riding her bike to work. Sullivan filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of the deceased against GEC this summer. That case is still grinding along.
This latest filing asks for punitive damages for forced labor, breached duty, and deceptive and unfair trade practices. Along with GEC, Shepitko, Winn-Dixie, and two motel operators are named among the defendants. Sullivan says the students asked her not to file the latest claim until they'd all made it back to the homeland safely.
"I was embarrassed that they were coming to this great country to be treated this way," she says.
When reached for comment, a GEC representative sent along the following statement.
We are aware of a lawsuit but have not been served with the complaint. From what we know there is no basis for it. GEC will review these apparent claims by some of our former student participants. We have always strived to fulfill our role in their visits to this country; and their feedback has been positive. Nevertheless, we take every concern seriously and we will continue to work hard to remain fully compliant with all aspects of this worthy exchange program.
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