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 email@example.com.