"Justice at Hershey for J-1 Student" (via MySanAntonio.com).
I've met quite a few young people on J-1 visas---for individuals approved to participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs---here in the US, both before my time in Korea and after, and learned about their experiences in western Pennsylvania: long hours in fast-food restaurants; crowded, overpriced one-room apartments; and life in isolated suburban areas that provided little opportunity for meaningful cultural experiences. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took a look at protests going on in Hershey, Pennsylvania by workers on J-1 visas disappointed with their experience.
From an August 20th article:
The famous chocolate maker based [in Hershey] makes a lot of tasty sweets that are sold worldwide, but Natalia Niewiadomska, a 22-year-old college student from Poland, wasn't feeling sweet toward the company Friday.. . .
She and dozens of other college students from around the world, who had worked at a sprawling Hershey packing and distribution center in neighboring Palmyra for the last two months, stopped working Wednesday, refusing to lift heavy cartons of candy or pack the treats as they moved by on a swiftly-moving conveyer belt.
The students complained they are doing much heavier work than they'd been told about, and for only $6 to $8 an hour. Having paid from $3,000 to $6,000 in airfare and fees to come to the U.S., plus each paying almost $400 a month for a four-person apartment, the students said they only make $100 to $140 a month and will likely lose money on the experience.
The program deducts students' housing costs, plus bus and drug testing fees, from their paychecks, which they said will leave them with only $100 a week, or $1,200 at the end of their three-month stay, far less than what they paid to participate.
"They promised me I would be here to work and travel. The reality is I work and sleep every day," said Li Chanjuan, 22, a Chinese student [protesting in Pittsburgh]. When students complained about the large amount of manual labor, they were threatened with the loss of their visas, he said.
"I wanted to improve my English, but I have only improved my muscle," said Feti Karademir, a student from Turkey.
See also "Companies Point Fingers as Students Protest Conditions at Chocolate Plant" in the Post-Gazette (via the New York Times) on the 19th.
The students, including many from medical and engineering graduate schools, said they were expecting a relaxing summer job and opportunities to befriend Americans. They were encouraged, they said, by the Web site of the council, which shows laughing students on a highway before a panoramic mountain landscape, promising a chance to "live your dream."
Instead, the students were dropped into the middle of a transformed American workplace, doing fast-paced production line and lifting work in round-the-clock shifts for wages of $7.25 to $8.35 an hour, under multiple layers of contractors. The students said they rarely saw American employees in their area of the plant, where they were packing Reese's, Kit-Kat and other candies.
The workers' relationship to Hershey passes through several filters, the article says:
The Hershey Company said it had contracted day-to-day operations at the packing plant to Exel, a logistics company. "The Hershey Company expects all its vendors, including Exel, to treat employees fairly and equitably," said Kirk Saville, a spokesman.
Exel contracted with a local labor supplier, SHS Staffing Solutions, to provide temporary workers, including the J-1 students, for the summer months when work is at a peak, said Lynn Anderson, a spokeswoman for Exel.
Furthermore, the placement agencies in the US often aren't the same companies that recruit applicants in other countries, creating an additional barrier between employer and employee.
See also this 2010 Huffington Post piece on J-1 visa holders put to work in strip clubs. Though not all the cases in the article are that extreme, it raises additional points:
The AP interviewed students, advocates, local authorities and social service agencies, and reviewed thousands of pages of confidential records, police reports and court cases. Among the findings:
Many foreign students pay recruiters to help find employment, then don't get work or wind up making little or no money at menial jobs. Labor recruiters charge students exorbitant rent for packing them into filthy, sparsely furnished apartments so crowded that some endure "hotbunking," where they sleep in shifts.
. . .
The State Department failed to even keep up with the number of student complaints until this year, and has consistently shifted responsibility for policing the program to the 50 or so companies that sponsor students for fees that can run up to several thousand dollars. That has left businesses to monitor their own treatment of participants.
The program generates millions for the sponsor companies and third-party labor recruiters.
Businesses that hire students can save 8 percent by using a foreign worker over an American because they don't have to pay Medicare, Social Security and unemployment taxes. The students are required to have health insurance before they arrive, another cost that employers don't have to bear.
My own personal experiences with J-1 visa holders were with coworkers at McDonald's from Thailand, Vietnam, India, Peru, and South Korea, and again weren't as extreme as others in the media. The applicants paid thousands of dollars to enter a work exchange program for periods ranging from four to twelve months, were paid just above minimum wage, and were living with two or three other workers in a one-room apartment run by a local slum lord (out of necessity because it was the only apartment complex within walking distance to the restaurant). Considering they earned just above minimum wage and had hundreds of dollars per month deducted for rent they usually didn't break even on their investment. And considering they lived in an area untouched by public transportation, their opportunities to visit the city (or leave it) during their contracts ranged from limited to non-existant. One group of Indians living four to a one-room played card games every night to determine who would get the bed and who would sleep on the floor. Another group from Vietnam was sent to western Pennsylvania after a month of living in trailers on the parking lot of a theme park in California.
Not every person who enters the US on a J-1 visa has a time as rotten as those described by the Post-Gazette and The Huffington Post, and not every foreign teacher who works at a hagwon or uses a recruiter gets screwed. But the biggest problems in both industries seem to stem from employers who put little to no thought into the treatment of their workers, and from agencies who exploit the lack of accountability in the industry to simply provide warm bodies where they're needed.