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America’s Sweatshop Diplomacy

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ACCORDING to the State Department, the J-1 visa Summer Work Study program, which allows foreign students to work in the United States for a few months, is meant to promote “lasting and meaningful relationships” between the students and Americans.  Try telling that to the more than 300 J-1 holders who went on strike at a Hershey’s distribution plant in Pennsylvania last week, with the support of the National Guestworker Alliance. These engineering majors and future lawyers from places like Turkey, Moldova and China came hoping to travel and speak English, but spent the summer packing and lifting heavy pallets of Kit-Kats, often on overnight shifts and for meager pay.  The America that the Hershey’s workers have seen is surely not the one the J-1 visa was created to promote. But perhaps it is the America we have become. Hershey’s business strategy is a microcosm of the downsizing and subcontracting that so many American companies have pursued during the past few decades in search of ever cheaper labor.

The J-1 visa, also known as the exchange visitor visa, has its roots in the cold war. In 1961, Congress created a program for international students and professionals to travel here, with the goal of building good will for the United States in the fight against Communism. The program, which became the J-1 visa, thrives today — but not as Congress intended.  Instead, it has become the country’s largest guest worker program. Its “summer work travel” component recruits well over 100,000 international students a year to do menial jobs at dairy farms, resorts and factories — a privilege for which the Hershey’s students shelled out between $3,000 and $6,000. They received $8 an hour, but after fees and deductions, including overpriced rent for crowded housing, they netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour. Hershey’s once had its own unionized workers packing its candy bars, starting at $18 to $30 an hour. Now the company outsources distribution to a non-union company that hires most of its workers from the J-1 program.  The Pennsylvania workers are not alone. Recent exposés by journalists and advocates have found similar abuse of J-1 visa holders at fast food restaurants, amusement parks and even strip clubs. (click on link to read full story)

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