The real scandal of Hershey’s exploitation of hundreds of international student workers is that it isn’t actually news.
Kudos to the students, who revolted en masse after paying a labor contractor $3,000 to $6,000 apiece to get $8.25/hour summer warehouse jobs in sweltering central Pennsylvania, and also to the U.S. labor associations to whom they appealed, Jobs With Justice and the National Guestworkers Alliance. Clearly, positive consumer associations with the Hershey brand helped students and their allies to package the sleazy arrangement as newsworthy (“It’s no Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” etc etc), but the only real news in the story is that this particular group of hyper-exploited students organized themselves. Which is great. However, since they’re guest workers and the slow-news, this chocolate-ain’t-sweet angle will grow stale in days, they’ll be out of the headlines long before the State Department deports them and slaps the wrist of the contractor who provided them.
Then we can all go back to pretending that this isn’t the norm for millions of “guest workers” and college students in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong: the Hershey’s arrangement stinks to high heaven, but it’s not the glaring exception to the way the U.S. treats its 50 million working poor of any description, guest workers and college students alike; it’s pretty much the rule.
Nor for that matter is it the biggest scandal in chocolate production. Far from it: Hershey’s and other major manufacturers are routinely complicit in sourcing cocoa from plantations that employ very young children, including victims of human trafficking. In fact, Hershey is currently the particular target of the International Labor Rights Forum campaign for fair trade in cocoa.
How “normal” is the Hershey deal? It seems to fall within the pretty shabby standard range for international students on J-1 visas (just one of the many visas through which the U.S. provides cheap guest workers to American employers). There are many global labor contractors vying to supply guest workers to U.S. employers on the various visas. In almost all cases, the often enormous fees paid to the contractor are borne entirely by the worker, not the employer—meaning they “pay to work” in violation of U.S. labor law (but that’s like pointing out that fighting is explicitly forbidden by the National Hockey League).
The J-1 covers several kinds of permission to work, including nanny labor, but the global “summer work and travel program,” run by the U.S. State Department under the cloying rhetoric of education and international friendship, is limited to persons who are enrolled in college in their home country. As with other forms of student labor, exploitative educational work experience, training/internship programs and the like, the J-1 has expanded explosively in the last decade, rising from around 20,000 in the mid-nineties to over 150,000 in recent years.
Even the “summer” part is misleading, since that means “summer” in the home country; the program actually supplies a year-round revolving pool of self-financing cheap workers to American employers. Employers actually receive tax breaks, though usually the real advantage is the highly compliant workforce—the Hershey revolt is, essentially, unheard of in a worker population that can be deported for complaining.
Most dishonest, however, is the rhetoric of “cultural exchange” and “education” associated with the program, which provide innocuous-sounding cover for the profiteering of skeevy labor contractors. Traditionally, the program appeals to American employers with dirty or unpleasant work with already-high employee turnover (Alaskan fish processing, housekeeping, dishwashing, laundry, table bussing, fast-food service, groundskeeping, warehouse and other general labor). Placing international students in these positions with a fixed employment term helps keep wages low; most of the students who have this “cultural exchange” end up feeling disillusioned. The reality of the experience is that there is no culture or education at all; the contractors acquire cheap workers and dump them in shabby housing near their employers (often collecting a second profit on extortionate rent), and that’s it. The “nonprofit” contractor in this case is tied to an international education and travel management group that has a web of revenue-producing education, exchange, and travel schemes, some specializing in English education for the hospitality industry.
Guest workers are vulnerable to bullying, extortion, human trafficking and wage theft. A 2010 Associated Press investigation made headlines with stories of international college students on J-1 visas forced to work in strip clubs and live 30 students to a 3-bedroom house. Interviewing 70 students from 16 countries, the report found most were disappointed and many were angry. A handful were angry at gangsterism, like the mobsters who pushed some women into stripping, or at Dickensian vileness, like the gift-shop owner who charged his employees room and board, but made them eat on the floor in his home.
Most of the students interviewed by AP, however, were not angry at these exceptional instances of maltreatment, but at the low wages, unpaid overtime, and the lack of leisure, educational and cultural opportunities for the working poor in the United States. Just like the single parents that they toiled alongside (such as those chronicled by Barbara Ehrenreich), they were enraged that they were forced into eating at soup kitchens or accepting charity while they were employed in the richest nation in the world.
In other words: the students who come on J-1 visas do get a cultural exchange, and an education, just not what they expected. They learned what it is like to be an American in the bottom quartile, or among the majority of American college students who can’t persist to a degree through the maze of debt, overwork, and underpayment that we bizarrely consider the “normal” lot of a student.
As I’ve written before, U.S. high schools and colleges are often deeply complicit in these sorts of arrangements, profiting directly from low-wage student labor and serving as a labor contractor, both directly and indirectly, to local employers. Usually with nary a detractor. Indeed, coverage of any labor arrangement with the word “education” attached to it, by any old excuse whatever, typically amounts to craven cheerleading.
Think I’m exaggerating? Read my 2008 account of the dropout-factory partnership between UPS, the University of Louisville, and the Teamsters that has put tens of thousands of Kentucky students in circumstances similar to the Hershey deal. Then use a search engine and see if you can find a single press report that is less than glowing about that sleazy deal. There are similar scams operated by shipping companies and campuses in every cargo hub in the country—has there been any improvement in even one?
Hey, Hershey’s workers: I’m sorry you got an education in the real America of working poverty. I hope you get a refund.
But beyond the propaganda and your individual struggle, what’s the lesson in this story?
It’s simple, really. First, we should stop treating students, international or domestic, like the working poor. Rather than exploit college students as cheap labor, an intelligent plan for the economy would, a la the G.I. Bill, pay students to stay out of the labor market.
Second, while we’re at it, why don’t we stop treating the working poor this way?
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