Dan Rather Reports’ powerful piece on Hershey’s corporate greed and the student guestworkers who stood up against it — and stood up for local workers and unemployed folks.
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.
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.
By Pamela Constable, Published: May 22
Across the Washington area last week, young workers from Europe arrived in droves, heading for jobs at community swimming pools. Lugging duffel bags, they filled out forms, picked up safety gear and chatted in a variety of Slavic languages, eager to plunge into a summer experience of new friends, skills and culture.
“Now I can meet many people and see America,” gushed Anzhala Scherbina, 21, a petite student from Ukraine whose family spent $3,000 so she could fly here and enter a U.S.-sponsored work-travel program. “My parents say this will be a very good experience,” she said with a giggle.
The Obama administration is going to great lengths to make sure Scherbina and about 100,000 other foreign student workers are not disappointed. Last summer, the popular program, aimed at creating good will abroad, was rocked by scandal when students working at a candy warehouse in Pennsylvania staged a protest, complaining of isolation and overwork.
On May 11, the State Department issued rules that ban foreign students from jobs that could be harmful, limited them to light, seasonal occupations that are not likely to displace U.S. workers and required closer scrutiny of their conditions.
Voice of America
May 31, 2012
[DOWNLOAD MP3 of audio broadcast]
This is the VOA Special English Education Report.
More than one hundred thousand international students will spend this summer working and traveling in the United States. They are participating in the Summer Work Travel program through the State Department. They receive J-1 exchange visitor visas.
The idea is for students to work for up to three months and earn enough money to then spend a month traveling before they return home.
The Summer Work Travel program has existed for years. This year there are some changes. The State Department recently amended the employment rules. These changes follow a strike last summer by foreign students working at a distribution center for Hershey’s chocolates.
The State Department said the students were put to work for long hours in jobs that provided little or no contact with the outside world. The students complained about having to lift heavy boxes and to work overnight.
They and other workers protested conditions at the plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. The students also complained about being underpaid as a result of deductions from their earnings. Some of their pay had to go to subcontractors involved in the operations.
The State Department has now banned the use of Summer Work Travel students in warehouses or packaging plants. Also, the majority of their work hours cannot fall between ten at night and six in the morning. The students are also barred from jobs in workplaces that the federal Labor Department says are unsafe.
More jobs will be banned in the fall. These include most construction, manufacturing and food processing jobs. Summer Work Travel students will also not be allowed to work in most mining and agricultural jobs.
Daniel Costa at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington welcomed the new limits on jobs that the students can fill.
DANIEL COSTA: “That is good because it will protect the actual foreign workers from getting injured on the job. It also protects U.S. workers, because there is high unemployment in a lot of those occupations.”
He also praised a requirement that employers only fill temporary or seasonal jobs with Summer Work Travel students. He noted that some employers have continually hired new student workers to avoid having to hire regular full-time employees.
Jacob Horwitz is lead organizer for the National Guestworker Alliance, the group that organized the strike in Palmyra.
JACOB HORWITZ: “The changes to the J-1 rules really recognize the demands that the students put forward, and both add a whole set of protections and changes that protect local workers who work in industries that use guest workers and also protect future J-1 students.”
He says the State Department’s changes will help return the program to its original purpose as a cultural exchange program.
And that’s the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Jerilyn Watson. I’m Jim Tedder.
May 4, 2012
The State Department, responding to a wave of complaints from foreign students about abuses under a summer cultural exchange program, issued new rules on Friday significantly revising the types of jobs the students can do, prohibiting them from most warehouse, construction, manufacturing and food-processing work.
The rules are the most extensive changes the State Department has made to its largest cultural exchange program since several hundred foreign students protested last summer at a plant in Pennsylvania that packs Hershey’s chocolates. The students said they were forced to work on grueling production lines lifting heavy boxes, often on night shifts, isolated in the plant from any American workers.
After paycheck deductions, the students said, they were paid so little they could not afford to travel in the United States, as the program promised.
Robin Lerner, deputy assistant secretary of state for private sector exchange, said the department’s goal with the revisions was “to bring the program back to its core cultural purposes.”
The five-decade-old Summer Work Travel Program brings more than 100,000 foreign university students here each year to work for up to three months and then travel for a month. The program, which uses a visa known as J-1, is designed to give students who are not from wealthy backgrounds a chance to experience the United States. The students’ trips are arranged by American sponsoring agencies that find jobs and housing for them.
The department said “the work component” of the program “has too often overshadowed the core cultural component” that Congress intended. The department also said the changes responded to concerns raised by the students at the Hershey’s packing plant.
Those students were “concentrated in single locations for long hours in jobs that provided little or no opportunity to interact with U.S. citizens,” the department wrote to explain the rules. They were “exposed to workplace and safety hazards” and “subjected to predatory practices through wage deductions” for housing.
Under rules that will take effect early next week, international students will no longer be allowed to work in warehouse or packing jobs, on night shifts or in jobs the Labor Department has designated “hazardous to youth.” In addition, the students will not be placed in jobs involving gambling, traveling fairs, massage or tattooing.
After Nov. 1, students will not be allowed in most factory jobs, including manufacturing and food processing. They will be barred from mining, oil exploration and most construction jobs.
The State Department also established new requirements for sponsors to inform students about specific cultural activities that will be available and to review all jobs offered to students to make sure they are appropriate. Job placements “must provide opportunities for participants to interact regularly with U.S. citizens and experience U.S. culture during the work portion of their programs,” the rules specify.
Most students under the program have worked in resort jobs, in hotels or restaurants as waiters, desk clerks, lifeguards or maintenance staff members. Many worked in national parks.
The department also tightened requirements on sponsors to “confirm” annually with employers that no American workers were displaced by students. Employers will not be allowed to hire foreign students if they have laid off workers in the previous four months.
“These rules are a clear vindication by Secretary Clinton of the students’ claims,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, the group that helped organize the Hershey students; he was referring to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “They were right, and Hershey was wrong.”