Report Calls for Probe of J-1 Program – Lebanon Daily News – 9/6/11

Lebanon Daily News

Human rights report calls for probe of J-1 program

By Chris Sholly

An independent delegation of human-rights and labor-law experts investigating foreign students’ allegations against The Hershey Co. and several of its subcontractors is recommending the U.S. Department of State conduct a more thorough probe into the actions of the companies involved.

The delegation, which came to Hershey to investigate the allegations at the invitation of the National Guestworker Alliance last month, released its report Tuesday.

The case began Aug. 17 when more than 200 foreign college students working for the summer packaging Hershey candy protested their working conditions. The students conducted a sit-in that halted production in a Hershey Company-affiliated warehouse in North Londonderry Township. They took their protest to downtown Hershey as well as Times Square in New York City in the following days.

The students paid between $3,000 and $6,000 through the Council for Educational Travel USA, or CETUSA, to come to the United States for the opportunity to immerse themselves in American culture by working in a job for three months. They claimed their jobs barely covered their rent and left little money or time to enjoy the American experience.

In its report, the delegation said it interviewed 15 foreign students individually, in addition to reviewing media coverage, and talked with the National Guestworkers Alliance. Two members of the delegation also visited an apartment building in Harrisburg where some of the students live. Members

of the delegation also reviewed a variety of documents including CETUSA contracts with the students.

“Our initial investigation suggests that the J-1 visa program is severely flawed in several ways. There is little oversight of the J-1 program by state and federal agencies, leaving great space for abuse at multiple levels,” the report stated. “In addition to investigations about the conditions of this particular case, we recommend a larger examination of J-1 work-and-travel programs, including how they are managed by home governments, designed and monitored by U.S. agencies, and used by employers.”

The delegation also recommended:

  • The suspension of the CETUSA contracts, pending the release of the results of investigations into the concerns that led to its report;
  • Individualized assessments and interviews with the students; and
  • Ongoing monitoring of the entities involved to ensure that rules are being followed and an examination of the tax-exempt status of any non-profit organizations involved.”This case reveals how companies like Hershey’s are getting creative in their search for the cheapest possible labor, using the J-1 cultural exchange program, which was never intended to be a guestworker program, to fill what used to be living-wage jobs for local workers,” NGA Executive Director Saket Soni Soni said in a released statement.

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and the U.S. State Department have all launched investigations into the students’ working conditions. The results of those investigations have not been released yet.

    Also on Tuesday, AFL-CIO PA state federation president Rick Bloomingdale, student workers and community and labor leaders delivered a copy of the human rights report and a petition with the students’ demands bearing more than 67,000 signatures of supporters to The Hershey Trust Co. in Hershey. Trust Board Chairman LeRoy Zimmerman refused to accept the petition at his Harrisburg office when the students attempted to deliver it on Aug. 29.

    NGA spokesman Stephen Boykewich said the group also called for the company to meet with the students.

    “We want Hershey to come to the table” to discuss the students’ demands, he said.

    If the company does not respond by Sept. 23, he said the students and their supporters would plan a mass demonstration in Hershey.

    http://www.ldnews.com/lebanonnews/ci_18836526

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