From Serbia to Cape Cod

In Provincetown, foreign workers are saving the tourism industry

In Provincetown, foreign workers are saving the tourism industry

Maralinga in WA/Flickr

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. -- Marko Ceperkovic dreams of becoming a diplomat. The 20-year-old Serbian is amassing the proper credentials. He speaks four languages (Bulgarian, English, French, and German) in addition to his native one. He's studying political science and international relations at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, the elite French university known as Sciences Po. Back home in Belgrade, he's worked at the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, a leading non-governmental organization. His resumé, he tells me, is four pages long. But this summer, he's perfectly content selling skimpy swimsuits and Asian-inspired home décor. Ceperkovic is one of well over 1,000 foreigners -- mostly Jamaicans and students from Eastern Europe -- who descend upon this small town at the very tip of Cape Cod every summer to take up seasonal jobs. Amid a worsening economic picture of home foreclosures, spiraling national debt, and stubbornly high unemployment, their stories provide a heartening reminder of the opportunity that America still represents to people all over the world.

Ever since its settlement by the Nauset Indians over four centuries ago, Provincetown -- "the Wild West of the East," as former resident Norman Mailer titled an essay about it -- has played host to diverse communities. It was the first landing spot of the Pilgrims, who signed the Mayflower Compact here in 1620. Beginning in the early 1800s, Portuguese fishermen, originally hired to work on American whaling ships, began to make Provincetown their home. Around the turn of the century, artists -- attracted by the town's natural light and stunning scenery -- started flocking to the town's deserted dunes, and they were soon followed by writers (Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams) seeking the inspiration that seclusion affords. In the 1970s, attracted by the town's welcoming spirit, gays began flocking there, and today Ptown -- as it's affectionately known -- rivals Fire Island and Fort Lauderdale as the most popular gay summer destination on the East Coast. A general atmosphere of free-spiritedness pervades; on a recent Friday afternoon, an elderly man in a top hat could be found singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Achy Breaky Heart" outside Town Hall.

Foreign workers are but the latest addition to this already diverse melting pot. The students, who come on what's known as a J-1 visa (typically issued to au pairs and camp counselors), come almost entirely from the American University in Bulgaria (AUB). According to a recent article in Provincetown Magazine, local lore has it that four students from the school -- founded 20 years ago after the breakup of the Soviet Union in partnership between USAID, the Open Society Institute, and the Bulgarian government -- found jobs in Provincetown and loved the experience so much that they told all their friends. The rest, as they say, is history.

Though the Massachusetts unemployment rate of 7.6 percent stands well below the 9.1 percent national one, it is still high enough to raise questions about just why Cape businesses are in such desperate need of foreign labor. The reason, according to both the foreign workers and the business owners who employee them, has to do with work ethic. Ceperkovic, for instance, works 70 hours a week doing two jobs ("I got them like this," he says, snapping his fingers), though some foreigners he knows work over 100 hours a week.

His multiple languages come in handy; in what sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, three ladies -- a French, German and American -- recently entered his store, and he was able to communicate with each of them in her native tongue. "They don't ask about pay, overtime, take long breaks. They just do it," Alexandra Ivanov, a 21-year-old Bulgarian currently spending her third summer in Provincetown working at a fudge shop and a clothing store, tells me about her fellow foreign laborers. "I don't think Americans could do it like us."

"We don't see too many coming in for work," David Oliver, owner of Cape Tip Sportswear Company, tells me when I ask him about the state's 265,600 unemployed residents. Meanwhile, "every day, two or three" foreign students come into his shop looking to add another job to their repertoire. "In general, the foreigners work harder and are much more focused than the American ones," he says.

Along with his mother and brother, Shawn McNulty owns the Lobster Pot restaurant, a Provincetown staple that is the second largest employer in town next to the local government. He employs 34 Jamaicans who work here on the H-2B visa, a non-agricultural temporary worker permit that lasts up to nine months, and for which the federal government has an annual quota of 66,000. Some of the workers he employs have been with the restaurant for well over a decade; they celebrate Thanksgiving together and McNulty considers them "part of our family." Three years ago, the last time there was a shortage of H-2B visas, he hired 30 Americans through a labor firm. On the very first day, McNulty says, he had to let four of them go because they "weren't skilled" or "got into trouble with the cops." That summer, the restaurant considered shutting down its lunch service due to the foreign worker shortage

The annual cap

lobster pot-body.jpg

The Lobster Pot employs dozens of foreign workers each summer (My lil' rotten/Flickr)

on H-2B visas (there is no limit for J-1s) presents an unusual economic conundrum, in which business is threatened not due to a shortage of customers but a lack of staff. "How can you run your business if you don't know if you're going to get your help?" Joy McNulty, the matriarch of the Lobster Pot, asks. She is quick to add that her foreign employees have the full panoply of taxes and unemployment insurance deducted from their paychecks -- money that, as non-citizens, they can't benefit from. Though McNulty spends countless hours every year filling out immigration forms, a process that she says the government should streamline, she's willing to do "whatever it takes as long as I can keep getting them back."

The H-2B program has its detractors, namely the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the latter of which recently criticized the way employers use the program to exploit foreign laborers in a report entitled "Close to Slavery." Joy McNulty invited a representative from the organization to a lobster dinner to demonstrate the good work conditions at her restaurant. No one got back to her.

With opposition to immigration increasing across the country, the costs of new restrictions will be borne by Provincetown and other communities dependent on foreign labor. When I ask Ceperkovic how he responds to the local man I met the previous evening who described foreign workers as "job-stealers," he replies with a fundamentally American retort. "It's a free market. Anybody who has complaints doesn't qualify against someone better than them."