Today In Cheap Labor


Amazing op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, via Joe in comments. Read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts:

The America that the Hershey’s workers have seen is surely not the one the J-1 visa was created to promote. But perhaps it is the America we have become. Hershey’s business strategy is a microcosm of the downsizing and subcontracting that so many American companies have pursued during the past few decades in search of ever cheaper labor.


Other guest worker programs — themselves often avenues for exploitation — are managed, however ineffectually, by the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor. They require employers to offer international workers the same wages as local workers in comparable jobs and to attest that no local workers are available. Not so with the J-1 visa.

Indeed, the J-1 program is attractive to employers because it is uncapped and virtually unregulated; companies avoid paying Medicare, Social Security and, in many states, unemployment taxes for workers hired through the program. One sponsor authorized by the State Department even offers a “payroll taxes savings calculator” on its Web site, so potential employers can see how much they would save by hiring J-1 visa holders rather than American workers. Visa holders can be deported if they so much as complain, and cannot easily switch employers.

At a minimum, the government should preclude the use of the J-1 program as a way to obtain workers at below-market rates. If the program continues, it should be reformed to explicitly incorporate worker protections, including the right to organize, and should be supervised by the Department of Labor.

Time to pull the plug on this program, or at least provide some strict regulation. But then of course the ownership class would complain mightily about oppressive government restrictions killing jobs. Never mind that the jobs are already dead.

This is what happens when you kill unions, America.



New York Times is on the story.

PALMYRA, Pa. — Hundreds of foreign students, waving their fists and shouting defiantly in many languages, walked off their jobs on Wednesday at a plant here that packs Hershey’s chocolates, saying a summer program that was supposed to be a cultural exchange had instead turned them into underpaid labor.

The students, from countries including China, Nigeria, Romania and Ukraine, came to the United States through a long-established State Department summer visa program that allows them to work for two months and then travel. They said they were expecting to practice their English, make some money and learn what life is like in the United States.

In a way, they did. About 400 foreign students were put to work lifting heavy boxes and packing Reese’s candies, Kit-Kats and Almond Joys on a fast-moving production line, many of them on a night shift. After paycheck deductions for fees associated with the program and for their rent, students said at a rally in front of the huge packing plant that many of them were not earning nearly enough to recover what they had spent in their home countries to obtain their visas.


A spokesman for Hershey’s, Kirk Saville, said the chocolate company did not directly operate the Palmyra packing plant, which is managed by a company called Exel. A spokeswoman for Exel said it had found the student workers through another staffing company.

Passing the blame on to the “subcontractor” is the corporate American way these days. It’s not us! We didn’t do anything wrong! Our hands our clean! We didn’t know!



Hershey’s chocolate ain’t so sweet, at least not for these foreign student workers who found themselves exploited by the free hand of the market corporate assholes who’d rather use foreign cheap labor than American workers. This is what happens when you destroy unions, America. Everyone suffers. As we hear on the video below, these used to be jobs held by Americans, with good pay and rights and workplace protection. Instead they go to foreign students who paid for the privilege, thinking they would get a taste of the American dream.

The students paid $3,000-$6,000 each to come to the U.S. this summer for what they thought would be a cultural exchange program through the State Department’s J-1 visa. Instead,they found themselves packing chocolates at the Hershey’s plant in deeply exploitative conditions. After automatic weekly deductions for rent in company housing and other expenses,they net between $40 and $140 per week for 40 hours of work. The workers talked about their struggle and asked for our support at the JwJ national conference.


The student guestworkers aren’t the only ones who have suffered. If Hershey hadn’t chosen to subcontract to have its chocolates packed by exploitable guestworkers,400 workers in Central Pennsylvania could have had living wage,union jobs.

And to our clueless news media more interested in covering Rick Perry’s corn dog condiment choice, fuck you. This is the kind of stuff that should be on the news, not some little social justice blog few people will see.

Oh, and don’t tell me these assholes are taxed too much.

Meet these student workers:


Filed under immigration

14 responses to “Today In Cheap Labor

  1. Proud Socialist

    “…Instead they go to foreign students who paid for the privilege, thinking they would get a taste of the American dream.”

    Turns out.. they were right. This IS the modern American dream, a living nightmare of relentless exploitation debasing the human spirit.

  2. This summer I visited hershey’s amusement park. I didn’t want to go, but several family members wanted to, so I acquiesced. What a rip-off. Expensive as hell to get in, then brutally expensive to eat, drink, or buy trinkets for grandkids. We took a 20 minute tour of the “factory” and got a history lesson. Hershey has a strange history, part of it includes running a kid camp of sorts, but didn’t accept black kids until the 70’s IIRC. Anyway, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth. Pun intended.

    A few summers ago, we took the kids to a place called the Dells, in Wisconsin. Unique place, every Hotel resort is a different theme, and all have large water parks, indoor and outdoor. A fun place for families. But I noticed many of the resorts had kids from other countries working there, and some did not have passable English skills. I left wondering why local people were not used to staff these places, surely there isn’t 100% employment in Wisconsin, right? Importing cheap labor has to be a failed strategy in the long run.

    • Actually, I used to work, tangentially, in the amusement industry, as it’s known. Amusement parks do contract for summer labor with foreign students. This has been going on for a really long time, but really took off in the 1990s. I’ve talked to many amusement park managers and owners about this practice, it’s very common. They always said they didn’t have enough American kids to take all the jobs. In fact, finding enough part-time labor is one of the biggest issues amusement park managers face. American kids have so many more options for summer employment now, between malls and other stuff. Amusement parks are incredibly labor intensive over a short period of time. They need huge staffs. Also, lots of American kids do summer school, have family vacations, sports camps, etc. so they have really limited hours. So I do buy the argument that they need to supplement the part-time youth work force with foreign students.

      That said, I’d say working in an amusement park is a far better “cultural enrichment” opportunity for foreign students than repetitive factory labor.

  3. Min

    And here I thought I was going to spend the morning not being pissed off about something…

  4. I’m sure the chocolate being packed is all made from “Fair Trade” cocoa beans, so it’s all OKAY.

    I may be the only person on the planet who actually used to prefer “Hershey’s Special Dark” bar to much higher priced chocolate (Valrhona, Callibaut, etc.,) but that was before they changed something in the recipe a few years back. It is definitely different then it used to be and even if I wasn’t going to stop buying their product over this I have not bought any in a while.

    • I’m sure the chocolate being packed is all made from “Fair Trade” cocoa beans, so it’s all OKAY.

      Snort. Hershey wouldn’t know fair trade chocolate if it boinked them on the head, and the horrible abuses of children harvesting Nestle chocolate in Africa has me completely turned off corporate chocolate.

      We buy coffee and chocolate from Equal Exchange. It’s not just more socially responsible, it’s REALLY REALLY good stuff! I love their breakfast blend coffee.

  5. Thanks for posting this, Southern Beale. I’m out on the Cape right now and there’s a lot of foreign students working at the various local spots. One reason is that “the season” starts and ends, here, before college lets out and for a few weeks after it starts again. I know a guy whose family owns two big restaurants and they have to start looking for help from abroad every year, and they can only afford to do it that way because they own some campers and properties where their temporary workers can live for the summer. In a seasonal vacation spot like here there just aren’t enough part time workers with their own housing to staff up for three or four months.

    That being said the only reason why there isn’t a year round economy 1) the rest of the economy, which used to be based on fishing, is shot and 2) once people began buying second homes here then poor people/working class people got pushed out as housing prices shot up.

    What’s Hershey’s excuse? Its a year round job, not a summer job. Smack in the middle of an old community that has its own housing, its own workers, its own economy. They should never have been permitted to shift good full time factory jobs onto non unionized part time workers. Its obscene.


    • Good points, aimai. Yeah, seasonal resort/tourism work is a whole different scenario, especially in touristy places like the Dells and Cape Cod. These Hershey jobs were factory work, not handing kids sno-cones. What’s Hershey’s excuse? Greed, I’d say.

  6. Dollared

    I think we’re awfully sanguine about all this labor importation. There are plenty of US citizens who would want these jobs. Think about post -50 preretirees, teenagers, and the chronically unemployed. Yes, the jobs run mostly May-September, but they are gainful employment and offer meaningful employment.

    I don’t spend much time in resorts, but I saw this in a big resort on Lake Michigan an hour from Milwaukee. Three million people live less than 90 minutes from this resort, and 12 million live less than 3 hours from this resort. 8% unemployment in Wisconsin, and 30%+ unemployment for under 30 African Americans. Yet there were dozens of imported Eastern Europeans working all over the resort.

    The key is making the system orient itself toward resolving this with domestic labor. First, get rid of the cheap imported labor – this program makes no sense. Second, make the same effort to recruit, train and house people from Milwaukee and rural Wisconsin that was used to recruit, train and house the Eastern European recruits. If necessary, use tax credits for hiring to make it happen, and have the local tech school provide some of the hospitality training.

    This stuff is not rocket science, and it is simply morally wrong to disemploy Americans through some government visa program. A perfect example of the State Department confusing its mission as “serve business with whatever they want.”

    • Mainuh

      3 million people may live within 90 minutes of this resort, but who is going to drive that far (or move closer) when the pay is $8-9 per hour? I had a job at that pay rate 22 miles away and I worried each time gas increased a dime.
      Most of the J-1 students come to the US not really to make money, but to experience the US culture. Many foreign students would not be able to afford a month-long trip around the US without the opportunity to earn some money during the average three month work period.
      Hershey is a very poor example, but most if these students – these government, business and academic leaders of tomorrow – have a positive experience that fuels the original diplomatic purpose of the Work & Travel program.
      Lastly, I want to recognize that unemployment is high, but by keeping our borders open, we also encourage other nations to keep their borders open to Americans working (and gaining valuable experience) abroad. Short-sighted labor protectionism canbe self-destructive. We all can benefit directly or indirectly from labor imports and exports.

  7. Dollared:

    Sorry, but your idea failed to take into account the fact that the WWB* employees are somewhat, er, ehm, scary to the touristii.