The NGA published a commentary on corporate abuse of guestworker programs in the English-language and Chinese-language editions of China’s People’s Daily.
From U.S. Corporations, A Chain of Exploitation
By Jennifer J. Rosenbaum and Julie Mao
August 21, 2012
Every year, thousands of students from China come to the United States to take part in the U.S. State Department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel Program, along with tens of thousands of other students from around the world. These student guestworkers are promised a cultural exchange: the chance to meet Americans, practice their English, and experience American culture. Instead, many of them have become low-wage laborers for U.S. corporations.
How has this been possible? Because U.S. corporations have grown so powerful—and so unaccountable—that they were able to turn a cultural exchange program into a source of cheap, exploitable labor. And when human rights abuses like these are exposed, the corporations shift blame down their supply chains, hiding behind layers of suppliers and subcontractors.
A case in point is the Hershey’s Chocolate Company. Last summer, 400 university students from China, Mongolia, Thailand, Ukraine, and other countries paid $3,000-6,000 to take part in the J-1 Summer Work Travel program in Hershey, Pennsylvania. When they arrived in the United States, the students found themselves packing chocolates for Hershey’s under brutal conditions. They performed backbreaking work in round-the-clock shifts for as little as $1 an hour after deductions. They were offered no cultural exchange of any kind. When they raised concerns, supervisors responded with threats of firing and deportation.
Hershey’s and its subcontractors had been exploiting student guestworkers in this plant for years without facing accountability. But this time, the story had a different ending. The students reported the labor abuse, and it became a major U.S. and international media story, reaching the pages of the People’s Daily and the front page of the New York Times. Hershey’s tried to lay the blame on its subcontractors, but the students weren’t fooled: They knew Hershey’s was the one profiting from their exploitation, so Hershey’s was the one most responsible.
In the end, the U.S. State Department responded by making key changes to the J-1 Summer Work Travel program in an effort to return it to its original purpose: cultural exchange. The State Department instituted new protections to help ensure that J-1 participants have real opportunities to experience American culture and interact with Americans, and that they have better wages and conditions at their workplaces. There’s still work to be done, but thanks to the courageous action of the Hershey’s student guestworkers, future students from China and other countries who take part in the Summer Work Travel program will be safer from exploitation.
Unfortunately, the exploitation of guestworkers by U.S. corporations doesn’t end with the Summer Work Travel program. In U.S. guestworker programs that have no cultural component, such as the H-2B or H-1B program, corporations treat foreign guestworkers as the ultimate disposable workforce. These corporations don’t see countries such as China and Mexico as rich sources of culture and tradition; they see them as rich sources of exploitable workers.
Take Walmart. As the largest employer in the world, every decision Walmart makes affects millions of workers. Walmart has stores in 130 Chinese cities with annual sales of $7.5 billion. The giant retailer buys from 60,000 suppliers in the U.S. alone. Walmart’s own Standards for Suppliers demand fair wages and working conditions and forbid forced labor among suppliers. But a case that came to light this summer suggests that these standards may not be worth the paper they’re written on.
In June, a group of H-2B guestworkers from Mexico exposed a case of forced labor at a Walmart supplier in Louisiana called C.J.’s Seafood. The guestworkers were forced to work up to 24-hour shifts with no overtime pay, locked into the plant, and faced threats of firing, deportation, and violence against their families back in Mexico to stop them from exposing the abuse.
Faced with a clear case of forced labor, Walmart attempted to cover it up. It failed because of a national outcry, including a petition that was signed by 150,000 people. Under national pressure, Walmart was forced to admit to labor violations at C.J.’s in the pages of the New York Times and to suspend its contract with the supplier. The U.S. Department of Labor also slammed the Walmart supplier for serious and willful violations of federal labor law, demanding over $248,000 in back wages, fines, and penalties.
In spite of this, Walmart is refusing to cooperate with a national investigation to expose and end forced labor across its U.S. supply chain. If Walmart can’t prevent forced labor at a single seafood supplier in rural Louisiana, how can it claim to enforce basic human rights at 60,000 other suppliers in the U.S.?
The greatest threat to the legal rights of workers is the drive by corporations like Walmart and Hershey to push profits ever higher by forcing wages and working conditions down ever lower. The result is abuse and exploitation at every turn: in cultural exchange programs, in guestworker programs, and on factory floors.
Thanks to the bravery of Chinese student guestworkers and H-2B guestworkers from Mexico, the U.S. government has taken the first steps toward reforming and regulating exploitative workplaces and visa programs. But the only way workers’ human rights will be secure is if it can apply the same scrutiny, reform, and regulation to the corporations ultimately responsible. For the many thousands of workers still facing abuse and exploitation, there’s a long way left to go.
(Jennifer J. Rosenbaum is Legal Director and Julie Mao is a Staff Attorney at the National Guestworker Alliance, based in the United States.)
每年都有成千上万名中国学生和数万名来自世界各地的学生来美国参加美国国务院的J-1“暑期打工与旅游项目”（Summer Work Travel Program）。这些学生得到交化交流的承诺——有机会与美国人见面，练习英语并体验美国文化。但他们中许多人却成为美国公司的廉价劳工。
今年6月，一群来自墨西哥的H-2B劳工曝光了这样一个案件。他们举报了一个沃尔玛的供应商，名叫C.J.海鲜（C.J.’s Seafood）位于 路易斯安那州，使用强迫性劳工。这些外来工被迫轮班工作，每个班次的时间可长达24小时，并且没有加班费。他们被锁在厂里，面对解雇、驱逐出境和对他们在墨西哥的家人实施暴力行为等威胁，其目的是为了防止他们曝光这种不正当行为。
(作者Jennifer J. Rosenbaum和Julie Mao为全国外籍劳工联合会National Guestworker Alliance的法律工作者)