Student Labor Scandal Illuminates the Gray Market for Guestworkers

Michelle Chen

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 euphamistically 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.

Following the Labor Department citations, Jennifer J. Rosenbaum, legal director of the National Guestworker Alliance, stated:

This is a case study of the way a major corporation uses a subcontracting giant to kill decent U.S. jobs…. Corporations try to avoid responsibility for labor abuses by hiding behind chains of subcontractors, and by hiring guestworkers who are vulnerable to threats of retaliation. This time, it didn’t work: the student guestworkers took the risk to organize and bring these abuses to light, and the Department of Labor held Exel and SHS accountable.

Still, the scandalized companies that helped orchestrate Hershey’s candy sweatshop represent a tiny facet of the structure of temporary migrant labor in the U.S. and around the world. By definition, guestworkers are roped into a system that muddles lines of accountability with corporate impunity and the wilful political neglect, so that often neither employers nor governments take effective responsibility for protecting these second-class denizens of the global economy.

The gray market” for temporary foreign labor covers many sectors and brims with evidence of abuses that are often even worse than what the Hershey students experienced. The H2A visa program for agricultural labor effectively subsidizes systematic exploitation on farms nationwide, exposing both documented and undocumented workers to wage theft and brutal forced labor. The H2B program, which funnels migrants into other industries like food-processing and construction, has been linked to debt bondage and slave-like conditions, and only recently prompted signiicant reform measures from the Labor Department.

Whether seeking jobs as office interns or farm hands, many visa-based guestworkers wade into murky legal territory. Employment agencies based abroad may effectively avoid accountability under U.S. law, making it easy for their U.S. partner companies to skirt regulations – for instance, by allowing outside agencies to discriminate in hiring. Once they’re here, workers are often isolated from legal recourse or social supports they would need to challenge abusive employers.

The guestworker system embodies all the perils of capitalist globalization and its social parallel, labor migration. While politicians focus on vilifying undocumented workers, the migrants hired on the books” through visas are vulnerable to similar, and sometimes worse, abuses. And while many protest neoliberal policies that encourage outsourcing of domestic jobs, the government-sanctioned importation of foreign workers follows the same free-market principles, subordinating workers’ welfare to the bottom line.

For the young Hershey workers, their summer experience did ironically enlighten them about how the U.S. economy works. Zhao Hujiao, a university student from Dalian China, told the New York Times, ‘“There is no cultural exchange, none, none… It is just work, work faster, work.”

Cathleen Caron of Global Workers Justice Alliance, an organization focused on transnational labor rights, told In These Times that U.S. employers are increasingly enticed by the advantages of visa-based labor migration.

Employers and immigration attorneys are being very clever about figuring out how to beat the rules, use visas that are less monitored so they can do more and be more flexible with their workforce. And this is a global trend.

Caron noted that many other countries have long relied on guestworker programs to fill gaps in the low-wage workforce, in contrast to the U.S. tradition of permanent economic migration (despite various attempts throughout history to exclude and restrict labor migration based on race or ethnicity). In Gulf States and some European countries, she noted, exclusion from citizenship allows maximum exploitation and minimum liability:

[The temporary foreign worker system] satisfies labor demands, but they never get citizenship, so the foreign workers coming in have no stake in the future, they have no political voice, and they can always be sent home if the labor demand diminishes…. I think the U.S. is realizing that this is the global trend, and maybe this is what we should be doing, as well.

When a crowd of bright-eyed students arrived at Hershey for a summer of experiential learning abroad, their boss was already far wiser about the rules of global competition. In a society that pits capital against human rights, why should employers worry about rules to protect workers, when the government is happy to write new policies to legalize abuse?

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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