Foreign Student-Workers Strike Protesting Against American Working Conditions

Hershey/Palmyra, PA - Hundreds of foreign student-workers walked off the job and marched on downtown Hershey, Pennsylvania protesting low wages and poor working conditions at a packing warehouse for the candy giant Hershey Company. Protests were also planned for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The student guest-workers are here as part of a State Department program that brings hundreds of thousands of foreigners stateside each year to learn about American life.

Well, it appears the program is successful.

Using a special J-1 work-travel visa the students came to America and were contracted to the Palmyra plant by a California-based company called the Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA). According to one article, the students...

...were made to do heavy lifting and meet a strenuous production schedule, some of them working night shift. They were paid only $8.35 an hour, and large portions of their paychecks were automatically deducted for program fees and rent. Students said after the deductions they were not earning enough to recoup the cost of the program and to make ends meet.

Welcome to America kids.

Now I would be the first to agree that wages in America have become absurdly unfair. Even at a dollar or so per hour above minimum wage, Americans lucky enough to have a full-time job will not earn enough to live on in most parts of the country. That is indeed a serious problem, for Americans. But for temporary foreign student-workers to be complaining about it seems absurd when Americans themselves aren't able to make ends meet. Shouldn't we be the ones protesting? Aren't these students lucky to even be paid anything at all when so many Americans are usually not paid anything for what amounts to an internship? Aren't the Oompa-Loompa's lucky to be out of Loompaland?

The New York Times article on this story gives this account of one student who participated in the program...

Harika Duygu Ozer, 19, a second-year medical student from a university in Istanbul, said she had heard from friends that the summer exchange program would be fun and that she would earn enough money to pay for her medical school tuition.

“I said, ‘Why not?’ This is America,” Ms. Ozer said. (emphasized)

When she was offered a contract for a job at a plant with Hershey’s chocolates, she said, she was excited. “We have all seen Charlie’s chocolate factory,” she said. “We thought, ‘This is good.’ ”

Like many other students, Ms. Ozer said she invested about $3,500, which included the program costs, to obtain the J-1 visa and travel to the United States.

Why would a they assume that they would be paid enough to not only pay for their entire trip and all of their living expenses, but also to pay for their future education? It seems that some of these students thought they hit the jackpot with a free ride in the land of milk and honey and were bound for streets of gold, but didn't have to bother reading a contract or to work out some basic arithmetic. It also seems that people around the world have a serious misconception of what life is really like in America. What exactly did they think they were being promised, a six-figure salary, free English classes, and a chauffeur to take them from theme park to theme park?

At $8.35 an hour, a student would have to work about 35 hours per week (before deductions) for 12 weeks (a summer vacation) in order to repay the $3,500 amount that Ms. Ozer invested. Seems like a quite generous offer really, to be promised paid employment in order to help offset the costs of their visit, at a time when tens of millions of willing and able Americans aren't able to find any regular work at all. Even after a deduction for $400 per month rent, far less than what many Americans pay for rent, she complains about being paid a bit less then $200 a week in "take home" pay. Again, welcome to America. There are many folks who are glad to take home even $50 a week after rent. And it seems that if she is actually netting that much pay, she is not forced to pay the deductions that American workers must pay. Working 40 hours a week, an American worker making $8.35 an hour will only take home about $230 or so per week, at most, BEFORE rent.

“We want to own our rights,” 20-year-old Chinese student Zhao Huijiao told the New York Times. “There is no cultural exchange, none, none… It is just work, work faster, work.” She and three other Chinese students held out their arms to display bruises from moving heavy boxes.

Bruises? Oh nose! Try working for a dollar less per hour in some gas station kwiki-mart dealing with asshole customers all day and running a very high risk of getting shot over the $200 in your cash register. Rights? What rights? You are not entitled to anything here in America, as a foreigner, yet you are enjoying as much rights as any American, and even more. You were guaranteed a job. A luxury most Americans do NOT have. Cultural exchange? Well buddy, take a big whiff of life in America. Work, go home, eat some ramen, watch some American Idol, sleep for a few hours, and do it all over again. That is life in America today. If you want more than that, then on your day off go ahead and visit a museum, or head on down do the Hershey fun park, have a candy bar and a slice of pizza. There is your cultural exchange. Granted, factory work is not the most fulfilling work. It is labor intensive and repetitive, but one could do a lot worse than to work in an American factory that has a rather high safety standard and labor protection laws compared to the rest of the world. Did you really think you were being promised an executive suite in Manhattan?

Here is another excerpt from the NYT article...

“You stand for the entire eight hours,” she said. “It is the worst thing for your fingers and hands and your back; you are standing at an angle.”

At one of the sites where she worked, she said, cameras were trained on her, and supervisors told her that if she did not want to maintain the pace of work, she should leave.

Well sweetheart, if you can't do the job, then why should they pay you? They need a job done, that is the bottom line. If you can't do it, you're on your own. They have no obligation to you of any sort. Take it up with the Sate Department if you don't like the job you were handed on a silver platter. In the meantime, they need these boxes packed and shipped. That's the job. Don't like it? Start putting out job applications elsewhere just like every other American and a long line of foreigners. And cameras? Lol. If you have a problem with cameras America is not the country for you.

One more excerpt form the NYT article quoting a student-worker...

Godwin Efobi, 26, a third-year medical student from Nigeria who is studying at a university in Ukraine, said his job was moving boxes. “Since I came here, I have a permanent ache in my back,” Mr. Efobi said. “Holding a pen is now a big task for me; my muscles ache.”

Wow, just wow. And folks have the nerve to call Americans soft? This guy lifts some boxes for a few hours and can't lift a pen? Hit the gym buddy.

Now all things considered here, I never read any of the contracts or promotional material recruiting these students. It's quite possible that they were coerced to some extent. I would not doubt that in the least in fact, that they were led to believe that they were being offered something more than they were getting, without actually being lied to "technically" for the benefit of an American company or two. But hey, that's lesson number one in America. Read the fine print. And if it isn't in the print at all, you damn well better ask and nail someone down to an answer before you commit. Never assume anything.

It also sounds too though, like all these medical students and so forth from foreign lands have a certain "silver spoon" syndrome that many American students also have. That somehow manual labor is beneath them. Or that working a full time job interferes with "more important" things.

So really, at the end of this article I am of mixed feelings. On the one hand, these students should feel lucky at all to be given any full-time job at all, even one above minimum wage on top of that, in order to offset their costs of living in America for a time under genuinely American conditions. On the other hand, we can see clearly that American corporations are exploiting foreign labor while shunning domestic labor. At the same time we must ask ourselves, how far have we fallen that people from third-world nations and totalitarian states find common life in America to be wretched?

End all be all, I think that these students were shocked to find that America is not what we have been billed to be around the world for so many years. We are rapidly degenerating into a third world nation, as predicted now for many years, and this story makes the prediction now apparently true. There is a very wide income disparity, workers are treated more unfairly than ever in relation to their pay versus labor. It is no exaggeration to say that we are being paid a slave-wage, or worse. At least slaves are given enough to subsist on. Today, so many American workers labor away only to find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into debt, as if there were a vampire draining away their life's toil, reducing them to less than slaves. Human beings of negative value.

A sad state of affairs. Did we really need some foreign students to wake us up to this new American reality?

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