“Their experience of America is America within the four walls of a factory in a subcontracted company and in the heart of a company town, and that’s not the America they came to experience. . .These student workers are actually on strike for their neighbors, Pennsylvanians, demanding these jobs be turned into living wage jobs for Pennsylvanians.” –Saket Soni, head of the National Guestworker Alliance.
I don’t know how many of you heard about this–I learned of it over the weekend. Basically, students from various countries came over to the US on a J-1 summer visa program that allowed them to work for two months and then travel. It should allow them to make some decent money, to travel, and to immerse themselves in the life and culture of the US. But in recent years, there have been complaints of bad working conditions at the jobs.
Things finally came to a head this year, when 200 of these students walked out of their job at the Hershey packing plant in Palmyra, PA.
In the protest on Wednesday, about 200 students who were scheduled to start work on an evening shift at 3 p.m. walked into the plant and presented a petition with several hundred signatures to a management representative. Then, together with some students coming off the daytime shift, they marched out.
“There is no cultural exchange, none, none,” a student from China said. “It is just work, work faster, work.”
They came down the driveway to the plant, with semi-trailer trucks wheeling by, chanting, “We are the students, the mighty, mighty students!” and labor slogans in English as well as their own languages. The students said they believed that so many of them walking off their jobs would stop some production on their shifts.
The students–who had to pay anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000 for their J-1 visas, found themselves working overnight shifts with cameras trained on them. A large chunk of their pay–which was $8.35 an hour–was taken out for the program’s expenses, rent (which was $400), and associated fees, leaving them with less than $200 a week. The last straw was when they discovered their neighbors, who were not part of the program, paid significantly less in rent they did.
Hershey’s insists that they contract out for this work to be done; they don’t actually hire or manage their own factory workers anymore, apparently. (Does any company do this anymore? Or are they really into passing the buck?) The students are also holding the organization that manages the J-1 visa program for the State Department, the Council for Educational Travel, USA.
The students say their working conditions are harsh and exploitative.
“I pick up boxes that are 45 pounds,” said Yana Brenzay of the Ukraine. “I am 95 pounds, and if I don’t do it, supervisors come and make me do it.”
“I’m aching in every possible way, and my first thought is just to get into bed and sleep,” said Godwin Efobi, also of the Ukraine.
Most of the workers are students, ranging from 18 to 26 years old.
They hold J-1 visas and have paid to participate in a program that’s designed to teach them what it’s like to live and work in America.
Instead, several protesters said they have little contact with Americans, and the work leaves them exhausted. They also claim their average $8-an-hour wage barely covers housing and food bills.
While the complaints aren’t new, this is the first strike initiated by students on a J-1 visa. They have the support of the National Guestworker Alliance and union leaders and members of the AFL-CIO. The companies tried to mollify the students by offering a trip to various US landmarks The students want a couple of things: CETUSA to be removed as a sponsor of the J-1 program, and for their jobs to be returned to Americans who were laid off to make room for the much lower-paid guest workers.