Last month, hundreds of foreign students in the U.S. on J-1 guestworker visas walked off the job at a Hershey chocolate subcontractor
to call attention to exploitation there. The entire J-1 program is worth some serious attention, as EPI
Participation in the program has risen dramatically since it was implemented: in fiscal year 1962, 27, 910 J visa holders entered the United States; by 2010, the number had increased to 353,602. The largest J-1 category is the Summer Work Travel program, which in 2010 admitted 132,000 foreign college students for four-month work periods. Almost any governmental, non-profit, or for-profit entity can sponsor J-visa holders, and sponsors can either employ J-1 visa holders directly or oversee employers that do so.
Employers have several significant financial incentives to employ J-1 visa holders rather than U.S. workers. The J visa has no prevailing wage requirement, which enables employers to pay J visa holders wages that are lower than those earned by U.S. workers in the same region and occupation (and, conceivably, lower than guestworkers who hold H-1B, H-2A and H-2B visas, all of which have prevailing wage requirements). Furthermore, employers are exempt from paying Social Security, Medicare, federal and state unemployment taxes on J-1 workers. And because J visa holders are required to pay for their own health insurance coverage during their stay in the U.S., employers can employ J visa holders without paying for their health care costs, another significant cost savings. Employers are also not required to advertise their open positions or recruit unemployed U.S. workers, even in areas in the United States suffering from high unemployment.
A report on the Hershey case by a delegation of labor, legal, and human rights experts details some of the specific abuses (PDF) J-1 workers can face given minimal government oversight.
For instance, under the law, employers are not allowed to deduct from the minimum wage things like uniforms and materials needed for work, and are only allowed to deduct "reasonable cost" for housing. Yet the Hershey subcontractor had between four and eight students sharing one-bedroom apartments and deducted close to $400 per month deducted from the paychecks of each and every one of them. Equivalent apartments in the local area rent for $600 per month. That alleged rent money was going to someone.
Students were forced to do hard manual labor without adequate safety protections; their supervisors got performance bonuses based on their work speed.
Students reported that in response to their concerted grievances about working conditions, both CETUSA and management repeatedly threatened them with termination or deportation. Those who asked to be moved to a different job or a safer job were told that they were prohibited from changing jobs; if they tried to leave, they would be deported. Those who asked for new housing were told they would lose their security deposit.
My faith in the will of American corporations to abuse workers is deep. But even so, the realities of the J-1 program shock me. That the government is taking a pool of 350,000 people who are in the country for educational and cultural exchange and instead allowing corporations to exploit them in excess of the norms that apply to native workers or those in other guestworker programs, and that what we see as a result sounds so much like something out of Steinbeck, suggests that no amount of cynicism is too great in today's economy.