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$40 a Week? Guest Workers Paid Near-Slave Wages in Hershey Warehouse Stage Sit-Down Strike

J-1 visas, supposedly for cultural exchange trips, are being exploited by corporations looking for cheap temporary labor.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

In Palmyra, Pa., about 400 guest workers from a variety of countries staged a sit-in strike on Wednesday to protest their working conditions and pay at a warehouse run by a Hershey subcontractor named Exel. Guest workers were quickly escorted by police out of the warehouse and three people were arrested for refusing to leave the warehouse, including Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale, SEIU President Healthcare Pennsylvania Neal Bisno and SEIU Local 668 President Kathy Jellison.

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 two-month temporary contract and then are given a month to 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 students were in the United States on a program called the J-1 visa program, a little-known guest worker program that allows students to enter the United States for four months (working for three months and then traveling).

The J-1 program is increasingly being exploited by companies looking for sources of cheap labor. According to a report by Economic Policy Institute, in 2010 353,602 people enter the United State every year to work on the J-1 visa program. Workers routinely have wages for exorbitant rent taken away from them in schemes similar to the Hershey warehouse workers. Guestworkers are especially easy to exploit since if they speak up, they can be deported if companies withdraw their visa.

Unlike other guest worker programs regulated by the Department of Homeland Secretary or the Department of Justice, the guest worker program is overseen by the Department of State since it is intended to be merely a cultural exchange program. As a result, the State Department has only 13 compliance officers to oversee a guest workers program with 291,000 workers.

“We have heard cases of this all over the country. The J-1 program is completely out of control. State Department is not the right agency to be running this thing,” says EPI immigration policy analyst Daniel Costa. “It’s basically a guestworkers program and it’s not run through Department of Homeland Security or Department of Justice. The State Department does not have the have expertise, experience or interest it seems in regulating the labor market.”

State Department Spokeswoman Beth Gosselin responded to In These Times: “US Department of State is engaged in a fact-finding mission about the incident in Pennsylvania. We take the responsibility for the J1 visa program seriously. We are making sure that the companies that are sponsoring these students ensure that the rights of these students are meeting.”

Costa disputes that the State Department, with its small staff, can seriously regulating the program. They outsource the responsibility to their sponsors. They are basically stamping papers," he said. "Even if they find out some sponsor running this thing is doing something wrong, the only remedy they have is to cancel the designation of the sponsor and another sponsor with a different name springs up to do the same scheme."

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