Cultural Exchange or Sweatshop? – The Free Lance-Star – 8/26/11

The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

Cultural exchange or sweatshop?

By Howard Owens

It seemed like such a good idea. Let kids from other countries come here and work at places like the beach towns and amusement parks, make a little money and get a taste of American life.
But for those who came over to work for the Hershey Co., the nation’s second-largest candy maker, the taste has been semisweet at best.

Last week, hundreds of foreign workers, who have J-1 visas,  went on strike against the Pennsylvania company. They complained about  abusive working conditions, improper wage deductions and other violations of labor and employment law.

A federal investigation is under way.

The State Department’s  J-1 Exchange Visitor Program “allows for and facilitates the abuses the students have experienced,” according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The EPI claims the J-1 program has been “hijacked” by employer-sponsors who see an opportunity to exploit some cheap labor, probably cheaper than the homegrown American labor looking for a job.

The State Department apparently has outsourced much of the running of the program to employers, also known as letting the fox guard the henhouse.

There are claims of something close to indentured servitude, with students running up thousands of dollars in debt to be part of the program.

It’s been pretty easy pickings so far, I’m guessing. Who speaks for a bunch of foreign students who are being worked like rented mules for the summer?

The program is supposed to expose the kids to America, among other things. I’m thinking some of them aren’t taking warm and fuzzy thoughts back home.

Through the program, employers are rewarded for hiring foreign workers over U.S. workers. There is little government oversight.

The program started in 1962 with about 28,000 J visa holders.  By 2010, the number had grown to 353,000, including 132,000 foreign college students on  four-month visas. There’s no wage requirement and, of course, there’s no Social Security, Medicare or taxes to withhold. J visa holders also have to pay for their own health insurance.

What was supposed to be an educational and cultural plus for all involved apparently has been, in some cases, a chance to run sweat shops under the aegis of cultural exchange.

If everybody did the right thing, we wouldn’t need government on our butts all the time. But some of us don’t.  It’s a shame.

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