Singing the Italian solidarity song “Bella Chao” in a variety of different languages, approximately 30 cultural exchange guest workers rallied last Friday at SEIU’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. for the end of exploitation of guest workers in the United States.
“These students came to this country to get a cultural exchange, Hershey didn’t give it to them so now we are giving them a true cultural exchange in solidarity,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, whose union helped organize solidarity with guest workers when they decided to go out on strike to protest unfair working conditions.
Two weeks ago, 300 students walked out of a Hershey warehouse run by subcontractor Exel. The guest workers were students who signed up to work in the United States on a four month cultural exchange visa. Students pay fees and travel ranging from $3,000-$6,000 to work on a temporary contract and then travel freely in the United States.
The guest workers were supposed to be paid $7.85-$8.35 an hour. The workers, however, were forced to live in company housing and were charged $395 a month for rent – nearly twice the rate of rent for Americans living in similar housing in rural central Pennsylvania, according to the National Guestworker Alliance spokesman Stephen Boykewic. After deducting rent and other fees from their paychecks, guest workers took home between $40-$140 a week. The jobs they were originally filling were union jobs paying $18 an hour before Hershey subcontracted the warehouse jobs out to Exel, who hired the student guest workers.
Guest workers had initially staged a three day strike, with about 300 of the 400 guest workers in the warehouse participating. The guest workers are demanding a return of the $3,000-$6,000 each student paid for the cultural exchange program to work at Hershey, that Hershey end its exploitation of J-1 student cultural exchange workers, and that the 400 jobs the guest workers filled instead be given to local workers paid a living wage. According to the National Guest Worker Alliance, Hershey has yet to make a direct response to the students demand. Instead, Hershey opted to merely give guest workers a week’s paid vacation in order to comfort those who were upset by the exploitation.
After three days of most of the workers being out on strike, the majority have returned to work. 30 guest workers have refused to return to work and touring the country to speak at union halls, churches and college campuses about the growing problem of guest worker exploitation. On Monday, students delivered a petition to Hershey’s trust board chairman LeRoy Zimmerman signed by 63,000 people calling on Hershey to meet the guest workers’ demands for an end to the exploitation of the guest workers program and to provide good jobs for local workers.
Now, 30 students are embarking on a tour of the nation, organized by the National Guest Worker Alliance, that will help draw attention to a growing problem of the exploitation of guest workers in the United States. Increasingly, companies in the United States are using guest workers for jobs that could easily be filled by American workers at a time of record unemployment. The National Guestworker Alliance was formed as a project of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice after thousands of guest workers were brought to the Gulf Coast for clean-up operations.
“It was outrageous. We had guest workers working at hotels when there was record unemployment and at the same time we had guest workers being held in conditions of essentially forced labor,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “So we saw how these two problems were connected and we started the National Guestworker Alliance as result of the organizing we were doing of guest workers in the Gulf Coast.”
The use of guest workers is increasingly becoming a big problem in the United States, as these workers can easily be exploited to work for less than minimum wage through a variety of tricks and traps (made possible by poor oversight of guest worker programs) as Hershey did to its guest workers. Currently, according to Economic Policy Institute immigration analyst Daniel Costa, approximately one and half million people come to the United States every year to work under a variety of guest worker programs. Increasingly companies are turning to J-1 cultural exchange work programs to use workers, since it is not considered a guest worker program but a cultural exchange program and is regulated by the State Department. The State Department only has 13 compliance officers to monitor a program in which 353,603 guest workers participate.
Hershey may have picked the wrong visa category of students to exploit in the J-1 visa cultural exchange guest worker program. While many of the student guest workers do indeed come from third world countries, they are typically college students from middle and upper class backgrounds. They of course were shocked to find themselves working in sweatshop warehouse conditions for little pay. Now, the Hershey guest workers are starting to do something about it. In the J-1 visa program alone, 30 of the Hershey guest workers have vowed to tour the country, spreading awareness of these abuses.
“I never imagined when I came to the United States that I would go to some labor meeting and get involved in the labor movement, but Hershey forced us to become part of the labor movement,” said Godwin Efobi, from Nigeria, who is studying medicine in Odessa, Ukraine. “The solidarity and support from Americans has truly been incredible. In a roundabout way this is the best cultural exchange we could have had.”
Appeared originally in Working In These Times on August 30, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times contributing editor, has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers union, the Campaign for America’s Future and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, NPR, Democracy Now! and MSNBC. His work has also appeared at Alternet and in The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.