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Joe Guzzardi It’s time to eliminate the J-1 student visa program

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Joe Guzzardi

Posted: Saturday, August 27, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:59 am, Sat Aug 27, 2011.

Last week, a group of foreign-born college student-workers walked out of their jobs at the Hershey Company protesting conditions and their low wages. The 14 million unemployed Americans owe thanks to those kids because their public demonstrations put the spotlight on one of the problems American workers face — visa fraud that enables corporations to employ cheap labor.

The students from China, Romania, Ukraine and Nigeria were spending the summer at Hershey supposedly on a "cultural exchange" program. Imagine their surprise when they were sent out into the warehouse to haul heavy crates.

The Hershey Company took advantage of one of the many J-1 visa loopholes to place unsuspecting kids into hard labor at low pay. Dozens walked off claiming that they had not been fully warned that they would be lifting 50-pound candy cartons, packing prewrapped treats as they sped along high-speed conveyor belts, or that they would only earn $6 to $8 an hour.

One of the workers alleged that the details of her responsibilities were buried in her J-1 contract's fine print. Karolina Zwolinska, a Polish college student, admitted that it did mention lifting boxes but "it didn't say how many times a day you had to do it," which turned out to be many.

Under the "cultural exchange" program's terms, Hershey takes out transportation and drug-testing fees as well as $400 a month in housing costs from the students' paychecks. After deductions, they net only $100 a week, or $1,200 at the end of their three-month stay. Since the students paid airfare ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 to participate, they lost money. Worse, according to many students, is that they have no time to explore the United States' cultural benefits which they thought would be the main attraction of their journey.

The core question is, what are foreign-born kids doing working at Hershey in the first place? The unhappy answer is that they provide the low-wage labor that unscrupulous employers lust for.

The Hershey jobs should either be full-time positions for unemployed Americans or summer employment for U.S. teenagers. But several years ago, the once-great Hershey shut down many of its domestic plants and subcontracted a significant percentage of its production to Mexico. Lost in the process were hundreds of fulland part-time jobs.

Stephen Boykewich, a National Guestworker Alliance representative, understands what's going on. Boykewich criticized Hershey for a "decades-long process of hollowing out its work force, through downsizing, outsourcing and subcontracting," and turning warehouse jobs from "$18- to $24-an-hour, family-sustaining jobs" into $8-an-hour jobs filled by foreign students. Boykewich thinks Hershey should rehire its laid-off workers for all available employment.

The State Department, with jurisdiction over visa policy, and the Labor Department have opened investigations. The results, they advise, could take up to six weeks. In the meantime, Hershey has offered the students a week's paid vacation.

Throughout corporate America, many employers fraudulently use the J-1 visa. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, J-1 visas can be issued for the purpose of such vague tasks as "observing" or "studying." Since, according to the Wall Street Journal, only 51 percent of young people hoping to work held jobs in July, the J-1 "cultural exchange" visa should be immediately eliminated.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pa. and can be contacted at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 6:54 pm on Mon, Aug 29, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Jay... I have always felt our country has done fairly good in race relations considering all the cultures that are here. Sometimes I tire of all the chatter and put downs. I know there is racism but not to the extent claimed... Soylent Green would be a nightmare... but since it would apply to all races... who knows... maybe it would put us all in the same boat so we could have something to unify.

  • Jay Samone posted at 9:22 pm on Sun, Aug 28, 2011.

    Jay Samone Posts: 359

    Careful Darrell - one might think with your reference to Soylent Green that you were suggesting a remedy for our overpopulation and immigration issues....lol........

    I normally don't care for Guzzardi's articles, but I have to agree with this point of view on the Visas. I don't think they serve any purpose and to have a student visa to "observe and "study" our culture is ridiculous. I'm not sure which visas exchange students use to come here, but that program should stay intact if it is beneficial. But to have students come here to work under these visas completely defeats the original intention of "study".

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 7:56 am on Sun, Aug 28, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Bob... ever see the movie Soylent Green...maybe there are alternate solutions ...Im afraid Ms bobin would not appreciate this ...but at least it is not race based....

  • Bob Bennett posted at 4:54 am on Sun, Aug 28, 2011.

    Whistle Punk Posts: 1

    Of course Guzzardi would be sympathetic to Mexicans and South Americans, Joanne, but one immigrant is as destructive as the next. The problem, after all, is over population

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 7:58 pm on Sat, Aug 27, 2011.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Finally - a column that assigns blame to an employer for using and abusing foreign workers. But would Guzzardi be as sympathetic if the victims had been Mexicans, or Central and South Americans rather than Eastern Europeans and Chinese?


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