An Unhappy Hershey Experience

By Jessica M. Vaughan on August 21, 2011

The recent guestworker protests at the Hershey chocolate plant in Palmyra, Penn. provide welcome exposure of the State Department’s cultural exchange visa charade. Billed as a form of public diplomacy to help foreigners better understand America, in fact most of these are cheap guestworker programs, wrapped up in the pretense of a cultural exchange. In 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, more than 118,000 young workers from overseas participated in the summer work/travel exchange program in question, plus another 87,000 who worked here in other exchange categories.

The State Department considers these programs to be educational in nature, and thus harmless, and seems untroubled in the knowledge that the so-called cultural exchange organizations that sponsor summer workers are really just cheap labor body shops providing only token, if any, cultural experience for the visitors. Here’s how it works: The State Department accepts applications from “cultural exchange” organizations to become designated sponsors for its programs. Once an organization obtains this designation, it can then contract with third (or fourth) parties, including temporary staffing companies, to sponsor workers from overseas under its designated sponsor umbrella. The sponsor is ostensibly responsible for overseeing what happens to the workers under its umbrella. The State Department makes little effort to monitor these experiences and only rarely, if ever, sanctions, disciplines, or de-certifies a sponsor. The man in charge, Stanley Colvin, is a career lawyer bureaucrat who has run the program for ages and presided over its expansion from high school students and Fulbrights to a full-fledged foreign labor mill, and repeatedly undercut efforts to implement better oversight.

This is how Hershey got its workers. An organization known as the Council for Educational Travel, USA is contracted with SHS Staffing Solutions, a temp firm, which turned around and leased them out to a company called Exel, which had a contract with Hershey to run its factory. Some education for the foreign visitors. A couple weeks ago, I took my daughters to the Hershey Experience, a local attraction where they have a simulated candy assembly line where paying visitors can play Lucy and Ethel, and “experience” work on the chocolate line. But these young exchange workers had to do the real thing; the CETUSA spokesman said, “one of the complaints students have raised is that it is hard work.”

Just about every summer some local newspaper will report on the exploitation of these seasonal workers, whether at ski resorts in Vermont or Dunkin Donuts shops in Maine. Several years ago, I was an expert witness in a case involving abuse of a foreign electrician who entered as a J-1 exchange “trainee”. At that time, the cultural exchange “non-profit” sponsors, which included a New York City YMCA, charged the third-party companies as much as $800 per J-1 worker they sponsored. Some sponsors also operated lucrative side businesses, such as leasing cars or renting overpriced apartments or guesthouses, to make money off the exchange visitors. (See this piece for more details). The case I helped with involved a Romanian who suffered permanent brain damage in an accident resulting from his inability to read English-language warning signs at the eastern Pennsylvania construction site where he was working. He had submitted a fraudulent language certification to get the visa, and he and other exchange workers were brought in so that the main contractor could avoid hiring pricier unionized U.S. electricians. Their “cultural activities” consisted of an annual July 4th company picnic. The contractor settled out of court for about $1 million and, last I heard, the electrician is still living here along with his mother, who obtained a green card so she could care for him, because he can no longer work.

Something tells me that the United States might not be getting quite the public relations boost it claims it was seeking through these programs. It’s past time for Congress to examine every category in the J-1 exchange program and determine which ones, like the Fulbright and other genuine academic exchanges, are worth keeping, and which, like the summer work travel, au pair, teacher, camp counselor, and foreign physician exchanges, should be ditched in this time of high unemployment. Our country would be 200,000 jobs richer in jobs for Americans, and our overseas image would be no poorer.