The strike at Hershey by 300 foreign students here on J-1 work-study visas has been going on for two weeks now. According to Democracy Now, it is the first time that foreign students have engaged in a strike against their employer. Federal agencies have begun four separate investigations into the allegations of exploitation.
The students are now demanding that they be refunded the $3,000 to $6,000 they paid for the cultural exchange program (and the right to be exploited by Hershey) and that their jobs be given to local workers at a living wage.
The students came mostly from Eastern Europe and Asia. The fees they paid were supposedly to allow them to participate in a cultural exchange program. Instead, they became slaves of the Hershey Corporation. They were forced to do heavy lifting and work from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am, even though they were also supposed to be taking classes and studying.
Interestingly, they did learn a lot about American culture, just not the white-washed American Dream fantasy that the program had hoped for. They not only learned that American capitalism will take advantage of every opportunity to abuse people for private gain, but they also learned that Americans themselves are hungry, homeless, unemployed and desperate for a stable income.
While they were being kicked around by Hershey, they witnessed local residents who couldn’t make ends meet and realized that this was exacerbated by their exploitation by Hershey. If foreign exchange students could be forced to work long hours at lower pay, Hershey could avoid hiring local residents at union or local rates.
The J-1 visa program, which started as, and continues to be billed as, a cultural exchange program, has become the largest guest worker program in the country, according to Democracy Now. The $3,000 to $5,000 students pay to participate is a de facto bribe to legally work in the country, like the old system of job sharking that was so common in the early 20th century, when unemployed workers paid large ransoms to job sharks to get them in with an employer. Like the old system of job sharking, the J-1 ransom is a large sum of money for a low-income immigrant and like the job sharks or yore, when the money does result in a job, it is typically at very low wages and terrible working conditions. Workers at the Hershey plant were making roughly $8 per hour.
There are other parallels with early 20th century exploitation. The J-1 guest workers were forced to live in company housing with rents far above market value, similar to the company towns of the early 20th century, where workers were paid in scrip.