August 18, 2011
Not the America They Expected
On Wednesday, 300 foreign students walked off the job and staged a protest rally at a packaging warehouse for Hershey’s chocolates, saying this wasn’t the America they had paid to see. It was not a good day for the State Department’s efforts to promote a positive image of the United States through cultural exchanges.
The students, from Turkey, China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Romania, Mongolia, Moldova, Poland and Ghana, were hired under the J-1 visa program, which allows foreign university students to work in the United States for two months and then travel. The idea, as Julia Preston reported in The Times, is to let them practice English, make some money and learn what America is like. Chances are that if you have ever encountered young people from abroad working summer jobs at hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions, you’ve met some J-1 students.
What was unusual — and seems clearly against the program’s promise of adventure and cultural enrichment — is that these students found themselves working in an industrial park, packing candy and moving boxes, many on the overnight shift. Though they had each paid from $3,000 to $6,000 to participate in the J-1 program, rent and other fees were deducted from their paychecks. When they tried to organize, they said they were warned to stop complaining or they would be kicked out of the program.
As is often the case in the murky world of foreign-labor recruiting, responsibility for this debacle is hard to pin down. Hershey says this is not its problem because the plant is run by another company, which said it used a staffing agency to get its J-1 workers. The State Department uses a California nonprofit, the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A., to manage the J-1 program. The council’s chief executive said that he had been trying to resolve the students’ complaints but that they had refused to cooperate.
There is much good to see in this country. And no one should want to sugar coat the tougher side of life here either, including long shifts at backbreaking jobs for low pay that is familiar to American workers. But no workers should have to put up with bullying from bosses or threats of firing (or in this case deportation) if they want to organize. That sort of “cultural experience” should shame us all.