Russian News, the Hershey J-1 Protest, and American Values

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on September 19, 2011

The reporting of RT, the Russian government-financed English-language news channel, is often characterized by schadenfreude about the social, economic, and political problems of the United States. That dark pleasure was clearly on display in RT's reporting on the foreign college students' protest against working conditions at the Hershey Co.'s distribution center just outside the Pennsylvania town that bears the company's name.

The students have been working under a cultural exchange program administered by the State Department. They have been wrapping, stacking, and packing boxes of candy, many of them on the midnight shift.

I came across the RT report over the weekend, nearly a month after it was first put on the air. This is how it begins:

We've talked about a number of issues facing the (American) economy, and of course the big one – jobs. Where have they all gone? We hear the president of the United States and the head of the Federal Reserve talk about how we need to get them back in the United States. We talked about the threat of long term unemployment to this country's economy. But we went out looking for where these jobs have gone. And look at what we've found. Look at what corporations are doing to avoid hiring Americans…..They're accused of using captive labor…They're accused of luring students from countries like China, Turkey, Romania to come to the United States for a cultural exchange program. And then putting them to work in their factories instead. At the same time activists say this ties into the bigger issues of robbing local workers of living wage jobs in America.

At issue is the State Department's Summer Work and Travel program, which has grown rapidly in recent years. Last year it brought 120,000 foreign college and university students to the U.S. They carry J-1 visas that allow them to work for several months in order to finance a month of travel around the country.

This is how the State Department touts the program:

Summer Work Travel exchange programs have been a cornerstone of U.S. public diplomacy efforts for nearly 50 years, providing an estimated two million foreign college and university students the opportunity to work and travel in the United States during their summer vacations. The popularity of this program arises from its participants' ability to enjoy true cultural exchange experiences by being able to underwrite the cost of their travel through temporary employment in the United States.

The State Department sees the program as a foreign policy initiative. My reporting on the issue –for a report we will publish late this year – has thus far provided strong evidence that a large majority of the young people who participate in it return home impressed by the openness and energy of our society. The Eastern Europeans, including many Russians, are particularly amazed at how friendly we are with strangers.

But there is a downside to the program that goes far beyond the alleged mistreatment of the foreign workers at the Hershey plant. This downside has received scant attention from American journalism.

There are clearly many times when the program goes beyond the benevolent point of providing a seasonal supplement to beach resort employers stretched to find workers for the summer season. There are times when instead of supplementing American workers, it replaces them, stranding them in the ranks of the unemployed while it fills American jobs with young people from Russia, Moldova, Bulgaria, Belarus, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Poland, Turkey, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Ghana, Chile, South Korea, China, Thailand and other countries.

The Summer Work and Travel (SWT) program is not limited to the season of its name. While European students come in the summer, South Americans come in our winter (their summer), and many Asian young people come in the spring. And while many Americans think programs billed as "exchanges" send Americans overseas, there are few foreign jobs open to them. Besides, not many young Americans would want to buy into a program that might put them to work in the Ukraine for $1 an hour.

One of the most dubious aspects of the SWT program is that it not only facilitates the hiring of foreign workers, it actually incentivizes it. That is because it exempts the students from Social Security taxes, thereby providing an immediate savings to employers, who also pay no unemployment taxes.

And since the State Department has allowed U.S. sponsoring agencies to work with hundreds of foreign partners to recruit the young workers, the program has acquired a remarkable, money-making momentum. SWT makes it easier and more profitable for U.S. businesses – from restaurants to amusement parks to swimming pools to hotels to factories to retail stores to fish processing plants – to reach around the world for their workers than to recruit in their own hometowns.

The sponsors and their partners do the recruiting for employers, charging nothing for their services because they collect hundreds of dollars from young people eager for a taste of the American dream that American movies, music, and TV have nurtured in their imaginations.

And these aren't just any workers. They are energetic, eager for all the hours they can get. They can bring an international flair to the workplace. And many are very bright. At an Ocean City, Md., pizza parlor I met a mechanical engineering student from Bulgaria who said she wants to get a master's degree from MIT. And she said she would earn more in one summer, working as a restaurant hostess, than her father earns in an entire year.

On September 10, the Newark Star-Ledger published a letter from Michael McCarry, the executive director of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, which lobbies on behalf of organizations that sponsor cultural exchanges. McCarry previously had a distinguished career at the State Department and clearly has a strong and sincere belief in the value of SWT and many other exchange programs.

Wrote McCarry:

Surveys consistently show that more than 90 percent of participating students have outstanding experiences. U.S. embassies will attest that the program alumni build a reservoir of long-term good will that supports our bilateral relationships around the world….The situation (at Hershey) demands quick resolution and we are encouraged by the Department of State's investigation. We hope it will be assessed for what it is: an unusual, unfortunate event in a very successful program.

There is much to be said for McCarry's enthusiasm for the Summer Work and Travel Program. And his organization says it well. Unfortunately, there is no lobby for unemployed young Americans, whose growing absence from the workplace bodes ill for their future. And unfortunately, American journalism has generally done a terrible job of examining the Summer Work and Travel program.

The program clearly has positive features that serve the interests of our country. But there are legitimate questions about its operations – at Hershey and many other places – that need to be answered.

Too often, in my brief and ongoing attempt to report this story, those who can provide the answers – State Department officials, sponsors, and employers – have preferred to duck and cover. As they seek to encourage international understanding of American values, their silence mocks the value of transparency and accountability that we preach to the world.

And that is a story with which RT could really make hay. At a time when President Obama is touting his "American Jobs Act", do we really want official silence about an initiative that could be labeled a program of "American Jobs for Foreign Students?"