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Hershey Chocolate Company Exchange Student Captive Labor ProtestThe blow to US corporate greed spun out of control heard ’round the world.

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More than 100,000 student guestworkers come to the U.S. each year through the J-1 visa program. The J-1 program was created in 1965 as a Cold War-era diplomatic tool — a way to convince young visitors from around the world of the virtues of American culture.

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Exploitation Isn’t “Cultural Exchange”

Today’s J-1 student guestworkers know what even program staff now admit: the J-1 program has been transformed by employers into a vast, poorly regulated, low-wage temp worker program, where severe exploitation is par for the course.

That’s precisely why immigration reform needs to extend basic labor protections to future J-1 guestworkers — together with all immigrant workers.

Abuse in the J-1 program became too big to ignore in the summer of 2011, when 400 student guestworkers went on strike from the Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pa., protesting brutal conditions, sub-minimum wage pay and a complete lack of any cultural exchange.

The story demonstrated how major U.S. corporations were exploiting the program as a way to undercut local workers: the positions the students filled had previously been permanent, living-wage jobs with a union contract. Then Hershey’s fired those workers and used layers of subcontractors to replace them with a year-round succession of exploitable J-1 students.

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Foreign Students in Work Visa Program Stage Walkout at PlantPutting it all on the line, foreign exchange students expose the disgusting bottom-feeding habits of the modern American MegaCorp.

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In the aftermath of the Hershey revelation, the U.S. State Department, which administers the J-1 visa program, admitted that the program was out of control:

“In the midst of unfettered program growth, ECA lost sight of the original intent of some J visa programs,” the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General wrote in February 2012. “The OIG team questions the appropriateness of allowing what are essentially work programs to masquerade as cultural exchange activities.”

The State Department made some changes to the J-1 Summer Work Travel program to try to curb employer abuse, including barring the construction, manufacturing and food processing industries from the program. Acknowledging how far the program had fallen from its original purpose, the State Department said that future job placements “must provide opportunities for participants to interact regularly with U.S. citizens and experience U.S. culture during the work portion of their programs.”

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Student Guestworkers Protest Outside McDonald's in New York's Times SquareStudent Guestworkers Protest Outside McDonald’s in New York’s Times Square

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But obviously the changes didn’t go far enough, for it wasn’t long after that another major case of J-1 program abuse emerged at McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania. Again, in place of “cultural exchange,” student guestworkers from around the world faced sub-minimum wage pay and overpriced, substandard housing. The abuse sparked a day of protest against McDonald’s labor abuse in more than 30 countries.

Every time a J-1 guestworker defies threats of firing and deportation to come forward and expose abuse, it adds value to the nation. It protects the job quality of tens of millions of U.S. workers by preventing a race to the bottom.

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Foreign Cultural Exchange Guestworkers Unchained - No More Captive LaborForeign cultural exchange students unchained: giving the typical contemporary American liberal a badly needed lesson in “sticking it to the man”.

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Sources:  Jennifer J. Rosenbaum, the National Guestworker Alliance

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