Mitch Ellmauer, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
One week ago, 300 foreign student guestworkers walked off the job and staged a rally at a Hershey’s packaging warehouse in Pennsylvania. The International Labor Rights Forum has been asking Hershey to "raise the bar" for responsible cocoa sourcing and eliminate child labor in its cocoa, and the recent struggle of student guestworkers reveals that Hershey must do more to respect worker rights from bean to bar.
The students, who come from a number of countries including China, Nigeria, Poland, and Mongolia, thought they were signing up for a cultural exchange program when they were signing up for a cultural exchange program where they paid the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A. $3,000 to $6,000 for a visa and a trip to the United States. The students were told that they would get to see the US, practice their English, and learn important career skills. Instead, they were sent to Hershey’s Eastern Distribution Center III to lift heavy boxes for as much as 60 hours a week, often during the night shift. The students were subject to threats and harassment by the warehouse managers; they were threatened with deportation if they spoke out about their conditions.
The students were promised that they would easily earn back the money they paid for the program, but much of their wages are taken by CETUSA in the form of housing fees. The students allege that they are charged above market rate for their housing. The students take home just $40 a week after CETUSA’s fees and deductions and many expect that they will not make any money by the end of the summer.
While the strike at Hershey’s has been the focus of national attention, the exploitation experienced by the J-1 students is nothing unusual. J-1 is the largest guest worker program with over 300,000 students every year, and it is regularly exploited by companies looking for cheap labor. J-1 sponsors don’t pay Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment taxes. A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that J-1 students forced to work in Myrtle Beach strip clubs. Students have been found as janitors and maids in Colorado ski resorts and in New Jersey hotels. In Alaska, J-1 students spend their summer gutting fish on fish processing ships. However, few students are working at jobs appropriate for their education and skill level (the program is intended to train business and medical students) The students are not able to choose where they live; sometimes their apartments are so crowded they have to sleep in shifts. According to the AP, J-1 students in Maryland visited soup kitchens and homeless shelters because they couldn’t afford food. Sponsor companies steal wages and force students to work unpaid overtime; the “cultural exchange” programs force the students to pay outrageous housing, travel, and program fees. Belarus recently warned students not to participate in the J-1 Program.
J-1 Visa students and guest workers in general, are very vulnerable to exploitation. Guest workers are excluded from most labor legislation and the State Department has outsourced most of it oversight to the sponsors themselves. Although the State Department implemented new J visa regulations in June, there are still only a handful of employees monitoring the program and each employee is responsible for monitoring 100 sponsors. The State Department only began tracking complaints last year. So far, the State Department has not revoked a single employer’s Exchange Visitor Program license. Employers often hide behind a complex web of subcontractors and third party brokers.
The specific situation at Hershey also points to problems with the company's approach to worker's rights. As ILRF outlined in it's report Time to Raise the Bar, Hershey has been undergoing a supply chain transformation in recent years that has increased outsourcing and reduced the number of union jobs at the expense of workers rights. The company also lags behind competitors in eliminating child labor, forced labor and trafficking in its cocoa supply chain ten years after it committed to ending these abuses.
You can find out more about the Hershey’s strike at the National Guestworker Alliance. Below is a link to a petition you can sign to Hershey calling on the company to end the exploitation of student workers and to provide living wage jobs to local residents instead. You can also donate to the students’ strike fund. Also, here is a study by the Economic Policy Institute about the lack of oversight in the J Visa Program.