Student Labor Scandal Illuminates the Gray Market for Guestworkers

1:37 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

National Guestworkers Alliance

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The students came for a summer learning experience with a job at a classic American company. Instead, they got a crash course in the realities of the global economy.

Following months of campaigning, young foreign students who have waged a bitter labor battle against a U.S. candy giant, the Department of Labor has cited two subcontractors that helped import the students into the Hershey plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, where they were reportedly subjected to coercive, exploitative conditions. Though Hershey itself wasn’t targeted, subcontractors involved in the work program, Exel Incorporated and SHS Group, were charged with several occupational safety violations, including failure to provide adequate safety-training and a repeated failure to record injuries and illnesses.

Though the citations include various fines, they didn’t really address the core of the shadowy labor supply chain that entangled several hundred students from China, Nigeria, and other countries. According to workers’ testimonies, they came for an “educational” work experience under the J-1 visa program and ended up stuck on an assembly line packing candies for obscenely low wages. The recruits eventually revolted and launched a high-profile campaign with the National Guestworker Alliance and other advocacy groups.

As Mike Elk reported previously, the State Department has recently promised to revamp regulation and oversight of the J-1 student work program. The subcontractor citations coincide with an ongoing investigation by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division into the euphemistically named Council for Educational Travel, which handled J-1 visa hiring for Hershey. But advocates continue to press for bolder action to reform loophole-ridden visa programs that enable employers exploit migrants while dodging labor regulations. Read the rest of this entry →