Today in Palmyra, Penn., hundreds of foreign student guestworkers in the J-1 visa program, along with local unions and the National Guestworker Alliance, held a sit-in strike at the Hershey Chocolate company’s distribution center to protest abusive conditions. We support the actions of these brave students, who have risked employer retaliation and deportation to assert their rights.
The State Department’s J-1 Exchange Visitor Program allows for and facilitates the abuses the students face. Originally designed as a cultural exchange program, the J-1 has been hijacked by employers and turned into a program that provides cheap, exploitable labor. Employers are not required to advertise their jobs to unemployed U.S. workers, even in this time of double digit youth unemployment. Many employers import a J-1 workforce every year, and then deduct exorbitant amounts from these workers’ paychecks for rent and other expenses, and threaten them with deportation if they complain about their poor wages and working conditions.
The students themselves are required to pay thousands of dollars to participate in the program, to “sponsors” – which are entities that process the J-1 visa on behalf of the State Department and contract with employers seeking workers. The students often have to borrow the money from their families to pay the sponsor fees and for their international travel. Thus they arrive already indebted to their employer, and are desperate to earn back what they have invested. This is exactly what happened with the J-1 students in Palmyra – thousands of dollars were paid to the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A. (CETUSA), which then contracted with a labor broker to put the students to work at Hershey’s distribution contractor.
The J-1 students confirm that their experience has not been a cultural exchange. Instead, they work long hours and often end up earning less than minimum wage. As a result, they have little time to meet Americans or to travel to other American cities, or to experience any other sort of “cultural exchange.”