When hundreds of J-1 visa foreign exchange students/workers staged a protest against labor conditions at a Hershey’s chocolate packaging plant two weeks, it was sure to set up a firestorm in the immigration world. Now, labor groups and human rights advocacy groups are pushing for probe into the J-1 visa program and to find out whether other companies and organizations are exploiting foreign workers.
The firestorm started when hundreds of J-1 foreign student workers walked out of their jobs at a Hershey Co. distribution center protesting their working conditions. The students, who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, China and the Middle East, paid $3,000 to $6,000 for what was billed as a cultural work-travel program. Instead, they said they found themselves packaging chocolate for around $8.35 per-hour under bad working conditions and without any free time.
The U.S. State Department has launched an investigation into the distribution plant, which is operated by Exel (which owns the plan) and who uses the services of CETUSA and S.H.S. OnSite Solutions for the temporary labor. The Hershey Co. contracts with these companies for its chocolates’ packing and distribution. This week, Hershey Co. directed Exel and CETUSA to provide the students with one week of paid leave, during which the students will have opportunities to take bus trips to various historical and cultural locations on the east coast. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the roughly 385 international students have returned to their jobs at the distribution center.
The J-1 visa program, also known as the exchange visitor visa program, was created in 1961 for international students and professionals to come here on a temporary basis and participate in programs that promote cultural exchange and training, especially to obtain medical or business training within the U.S. The number of J-1 visa holders admitted to the United States swelled from 28,000 in the program’s first year to more than 350,000 in 2010.
Critics of the program state that the program encourages exploitation of workers because the program is largely under-regulated and allows employers to hire workers for low wages with no benefits, and little protection for the guest worker. However, Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange, said that while the Hershey situation was regrettable and is not indicative of problems within the broader J-1 exchange program. The J-1 program is particularly useful for medical training for foreign doctors who do not have all the medical resources in their native countries.
Despite being around for a long period of time, it is very likely that J-1 visa applications and the J-1 visa program in general will be subject to higher scrutiny because of the incident with the Hershey plant.