By Joe Guzzardi
August 22, 2011
Although at first blush it seems contradictory, unemployed Americans owe thanks to the Hershey Company’s protesting foreign student workers. The college students from around the world who are publicly demonstrating against their working conditions have put the spotlight on one of the biggest problems facing American workers—visa fraud that enables corporations to import cheap overseas labor.
While the student workers haven’t done anything illegal, the Hershey Company took advantage of one of the many J-1 visa loopholes to place unsuspecting kids into hard labor, low paying jobs under the guise of cultural exchange. Last week, dozens of college students walked off their jobs—lifting heavy candy cartons or packing treats as they sped along a high-speed conveyor belts—claiming that they had been assigned much heavier work than they had been told about beforehand and were earning only $6-$8 an hour.
One of the workers claimed that the details of her responsibilities were buried in the J-1 contracts’ fine print. Karolina Zwolinska, a Polish college student, admitted that her contract mentioned lifting boxes up to 40 pounds in weight but “it didn’t say how many times a day you had to do it” which turned out to be many.
Under the program’s terms, Hershey takes out bus 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 from $3,000 to $6,000 in airfare to participate, they lose money working for Hershey. Worse, according to many, is that they have no time to explore the United States’ cultural benefits that they hoped would be the main attraction of their journey.
The core question is what are foreign-born kids doing working in 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 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 full and 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.
Throughout corporate America, employers fraudulently use the J-1 visa (and other non-immigrant visas) to hire foreign-born workers. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, J-1 visas can be issued for such vague tasks as “observing” or “studying”. With U.S. jobless rate at 9.2 percent and teenage unemployment nearing 30 percent respectively, the J-1 “cultural exchange” visa serves no useful purpose and should be immediately eliminated.
Joe Guzzardi has written editorial columns, mostly about immigration and related social issues, since 1986. He is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and his columns are syndicated in various U.S. newspapers and websites. Contact him at [email protected]