By Patricia L. Sharpe
For years and years, in America, chocolate meant Hershey. Today, evidently, Hershey means sweets kept affordable by exploiting U.S. J-1 visa laws. Who knew that Hershey kisses come to us wrapped in sweat and tears?
But now we do. Some of Hershey’s overworked and underpaid workers have turned out to be eager young foreign students fed unsuspectingly into the American underworld of semi-enslaved, sub-contracted workers who keep the cost of living for cheapskate Americans unrealistically low. Unlike the tens of thousands of workers who find themselves trapped in an all too common bait and switch situation, however, these students weren’t afraid to go public. They got in touch with unions and non-profits. They took to the streets in protest. And their families back home, not abject have-nots, but people with accomplishments and aspirations in countries where America wants to look good, joined the protest.
The All-American Summer Job
What an embarrassment! The students were supposed to experience the joys of American culture and perfect their English while they, like so many young Americans, held a summer job that would help defray their college expenses. How American can you get? So they’d been issued a variant of the classic J-1 educational visa.
In fact, working a speed-up job on the night shift for peanuts (not even the joys of almonds) they did experience American culture, but not the kind that features summer music festivals and tete-â-tetes at Starbucks. And they reacted in a way that drew on (once) standard operational procedure among mistreated American workers. They rose up. They protested. And they did find some admirable segments of American society ready to show them how the system could work for them. So call it a mini American Spring. What a pity if overworked, underpaid native-born American workers don’t follow the visitors’ self-respecting example and demand a government that represents Main Street, not Wall Street.
The Hershey story is fascinating and instructive for three reasons. It reveals, once again, how the J-1 visa, for all its idealistic origins and fine accomplishments, has always been susceptible to manipulation. It also shows how the U.S. government’s ever-multiplying levels and varieties of sub-contracting have made supervision so difficult that mission goals often become distorted and financial malfeasance becomes commonplace. Finally, the Hershey debacle is just one more chapter in the exploitation of labor that has blighted American history from day one and, now, under global cost pressures, seems to be providing material for a new ignoble chapter.
The Happy Student Story
So what’s a J-1 visa anyway? To keep it simple, let’s say it’s the visa foreigners must seek if they want to study in the U.S. With the right papers from the accepting university, college or other bona fide educational institution and strong evidence of plans to return home after the graduation ceremonies are over, the visa is granted expeditiously.
What’s the point of making it (relatively) easy for these students to enter the U.S? It’s good for America if people wish to study here. U.S. universities and colleges can use the tuition money, especially to support programs in the science and math departments spurned by too many Americans. Better yet, historically, some of the top foreign students have remained (legally) in the U.S. and thank goodness for that. Since so few native-born Americans wish to study math, engineering or the sciences, these J-1 alumni immigrants have been disproportionately responsible for the American lead in computer and computer-based technology, to name just one area of excellence which helped to prolong the American century.
As for those foreign students who chose, degrees-in-hand, to return home, that was good for the U.S., too. Having been in contact with the best of America and often being grateful for a first rate education, the returnees became de facto American ambassadors in their own country. They have been knowledgeable. They have been sympathetic. Soft power at its best. A terrific return on America’s investment in the bureaucratic capacity to issue visas to those properly qualified to receive them.
Well, that’s how the J-1 visa is process is supposed to work. Mostly it does, but it’s never been easy to separate the honest students from the opportunists, some heart-wrenchingly in need of a path—any path—to a better future. So, on any one day, American visa officers have to deal with sad cases who plead for exceptions as well as shady operators who play games with the truth and submit documents of dubious validity. As for those documents, fraudulent or not, they bring further complexities. Some of the more naive candidates may not know that their admission papers come from notorious—or newly established—diploma mills, which serve two ignoble purposes. They allow American fraudsters to collect tuition money from clueless foreigners who will end up with worthless educational credentials. They also allow knowing foreigners to masquerade as students in order to evade America’s otherwise forbiddingly strict immigration laws.
In February I wrote about the diplomatic fallout from a raid on a relatively unknown diploma mill in California. At the time, it was not known if all or indeed any of the students who were uncivilly apprehended and clamped into ankle bracelets had been aware of the true caliber of the “university” they planned to attend when they applied for admission, but all of them were treated like criminals by U.S. immigration authorities. The reaction in India was shock and anger, and the clumsy handling of the incident by a public affairs officer at an American consulate in India added fuel to the fire. The State Department’s immediate response to the Hershey affair was equally clumsy.
The Monstruous Pyramid of Contractors
Unfortunately, any attempt to understand and assign responsibility for the perversion of the J-1 visa process at the Hershey packing plant has been complicated by the multi-leveled sub-contracting network that blights too many U.S. government operations today. “Among the four companies with a role in the huge plant where the foreign students were employed, each one pointed to another as being the primary manager in charge of monitoring the students’ work....The Hershey Company said it had contracted day-to-day operations at the packing plant to Exel, a logistics company. Exel contracted with a local labor supplier, SHS Staffing Solutions, to provide temporary workers, including the J-1 students, for the summer months when work is at a peak....”
The chocolate-maker, worried about its image, came up with a boilerplate PR response. “The Hershey Company expects all its vendors, including Exel, to treat employees fairly and equitably,” said Kirk Saville, a spokesman, when the J-1 story broke. And the State Department, no doubt, could express equally sanguine expectations re the performance of its J-1 contractors and sub-contractors. But, as a certain president is supposed to have said, trust isn’t enough. You have to verify. When you give money away, you must ensure that the contractor has used the funding according to contract—and, my goodness, effectively. That means hiring auditors, lots of auditors, auditors with guts and no complicating connections. It ain’t cheap.
All in all, when oversight and goodly profit margins are built in, not all that much is saved by contracting out—especially when a more or less normal amount of corruption is added in—and a predictably minimal commitment to the mission itself is allowed for. Let’s put the commitment part this way. A State Department employee’s mission is to produce a good policy result for the U.S. He or she gains no institutional reward by doing a shoddy job. However, since a contractor’s mission is only to make a profit, the quality of the job isn’t as important as his bottom line.
Cynical? No, realistic. Again and again in recent years we’ve witnessed the tragicomedy of foreign policy—developmental, diplomatic, military—contracted out. The reports from U.S. missions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq show how billions of U.S. dollars have been funneled through private sector organizations to very poor effect. Sometimes, it seems, sub-contractors have found it profitable to funnel U.S. dollars to Taliban agents! And so on. The Hershey debacle is the tiniest peephole into this vast scandal made possibly by the ideological romance with privatization. Needless to say the ideologues in Washington do not want a proper auditing of this waste of tax payer dollars.
Cheap Labor Redux
Unfortunately, the Hershey incident also reminds us of the ruthless exploitation that has been a constant of American economic history. The norm was established early on, with black slave labor and indentured white labor. By the nineteenth century the cheap labor that was needed had other origins: the Chinese who built our continent-spanning railroads; the Eastern and Southern Europeans who did the grunt work in factories and mines that made for the industrial revolution. Toward the end of the twentieth century the people who were worked as hard as possible for as little as possible tended increasingly to be Latinos. In America, anyone will do, so long as the price is right.
And so, in the Hershey case, the J-1 visa process was co-opted for private profit, but the State Department was largely oblivious. Or was it? I don’t know. I only know that the Hershey situation, once it developed, was managed badly. Surely, it could have been handled managed more adroitly—but only if there had been the kind of oversight that would have provided the data to respond convincingly. In that case, State could have cited the huge numbers of happy participants involved in this wonderful program, then told a few well-chosen emotionally-satisfying success stories and finally promised, with convincing earnestness, to get to the bottom of this truly unfortunate aberration. The press reaction, I promise you, would have been far less scornful.