By Joe Guzzardi
March 9, 2012
Although it seems like only yesterday, six months have passed since last August when foreign-born student workers exposed the Hershey Company’s abuse of the State Department’s Summer Work Travel (SWT) program.
College students from Turkey, Moldova and China as well as other nations came at their own expense to work at Hershey allegedly to promote “lasting and meaningful relationships” with their American peers.
In reality, SWT turned out to be just another cheap labor program that allows multimillion dollar corporations to exploit unsuspecting workers. The disappointed students who came to the United States on J-1 visas spent last summer lifting 50 pound pallets of candy bars, often on the night shift, for small money.
The SWT is America’s biggest guest worker program. Corporate employment agencies, referred to as sponsors, recruit more than 100,000 international students annually to do menial jobs at dairy farms, resorts and factories. The teenagers at Hershey prepaid their airline fare, often thousands of dollars. Then after shelling out high rent for substandard housing and deducting company imposed fees, students netted about $2.50 an hour from their $8 wage. Not long ago, Hershey had unionized workers who earned $18 to $30 dollars to pack chocolate. Those jobs, at a much lower pay scale, are now located in Mexico.
In some ways, the Hershey kids are the lucky ones. Other J-1 participants’ craven sponsors sent them to beach resorts but then abandoned them. Some were conned by agencies that fraudulently took their money for non-existent jobs. The most unfortunate may have been a young woman forced to work in a strip club.
Hershey’s pattern is consistent with modern corporate America; outsource good jobs that included paid vacations, medical benefits and pensions. Then, domestically, replace Americans with cheap foreign-born labor even if those employees are illegal immigrants.
When the students went on strike, Hershey found itself in the media’s spotlight. After an Associated Press investigation, unflattering stories about the company’s shameful treatment of its international employees made national headline news.
The State Department which oversees J-1 visa issuance is just as guilty the corporations. By failing to monitor what actually occurs at the workplace, it sanctions abuse. Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz said about the State Department’s role: “It’s an abject failure on the part of the federal government to the point of recklessness.
Once exposed, the State Department promised immediate changes. Adam Ereli, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, wrote an internal memo that outlined the proposed corrections. Included is a vaguely worded provision requiring companies to “use particular prudence and caution when dealing with jobs that offer legitimate employment….”
The most practical suggestion is the State Department’s recommendation that employers be more aware of the potential labor pool in the United States. With teen unemployment at record highs, corporations should have no difficulty securing local workers assuming they offer the prevailing wage.
Unfortunately, if you hope that your family’s youngster will land a summer job, I have bad news. You’re too late. The International Council on Educational Exchange with its “network of 70 representatives in 50 countries” has already filled most U.S. positions.
American worker displacement continues even during the temporary summer season when kids could be using their earnings for college tuition, to buy a new car or to help out with home living expenses.
Without meaningful change in the SWT program, the “lasting” memories foreign-born workers will take home with them is of their months spent with “Ugly American” employers.
Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. His columns have been syndicated since 1986. Contact him at [email protected]