The Emperor’s New Educational Exchange

On August 17, 2011, while some people were busy assembling backyard s’mores, a group of international student exchange workers in Pennsylvania had quite another mid-summer experience in chocolate. Having arrived as participants in the State Department’s “Summer Work and Travel” program under the J-1 “exchange visitor” visa umbrella, which allows international students to come to the U.S. to “work and study” for four months, they came to realize that they had been hired as nothing more than a very convenient “staffing solution” for the Hershey Chocolate Company. They were the cheapest possible migrant laborers from overseas, working for minimal pay without benefits.


By all appearances, the “Summer Work and Travel” program must have spelled to interested students an especially rare opportunity to align their appetite for studying other languages, people, and histories with financial feasibility. But, as became evident on August 17 when a majority of the Hershey J-1 students went on strike in a country not their own, that opportunity proved an illusion, and an especially costly one at that.


Working in what Jennifer Gordon, professor of Labor and Immigration at Fordham University has likened to “sweatshop conditions” (New York Times), the protestors found themselves standing by fast-moving production lines, packing and lifting heavy candy boxes for hours on end, many of them in late-night shifts starting at 11:00 PM. Wages were paid, not to the students, but to their sponsoring agency, the Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA), which then, after withholding grossly overblown payments for housing and furniture rental, passed on their earnings for the week.


After all was said and done, students’ hourly wages of $7.85 to $8.35 became more like $1.00 to $3.00/hour. Further adjustments to these earnings for the $3,000 to $6,000 an individual student had to pay to travel to the U.S. in the first place, this “intercultural educational experience” looked a lot like an exploitative scheme to attract an especially vulnerable class of captive “guest workers.”


After weeks of trying to bring attention to their predicament by talking to supervisors, as well as representatives of CETUSA, which resulted in no improvement in their situation, a majority of the Hershey J-1 students, supported by the National Guestworker Alliance, finally decided to take action and make their grievances public. They orchestrated a sit-down strike in the Hershey facility, which brought production to a halt, and then proceeded to articulate their dual demands: (1) to be refunded the $3,000-$6,000 they had individually paid for participation in a “cultural exchange program” that had not materialized; and (2) that the 400 positions they held be turned into living wage jobs for the local Pennsylvania population.


The Hershey Company promptly refused any responsibility for the students’ situation, arguing that their complaints did not fall within its purview, as it had outsourced the staffing of the Eastern Distribution Center in Palmyra, Pennsylvania to Exel North American Logistics. Exel also claimed exemption by having contracted with SHS Onsite Solutions Inc., an employment agency, which, in turn, had been working with—and here the global circle closes—CETUSA which supplied the J-1 students for Hershey. To get to CETUSA, students had to work through yet another layer of agencies, in their countries of origin. Needless to say, this is exemplary of what “human resources” has come to mean on the globalized market for cheap migrant labor.


With four federal investigations hanging over it, the Hershey Company eventually changed its tune and began advocating for a week’s worth of paid vacation for the students. As of September 23, when another rally was held, the students were still short of their money. And, instead of turning low-wage, temporary jobs into unionized employment, the concerned companies decided to solve the problem by simply not hiring J-1 students for the Hershey plant any longer. One wonders who will fill these jobs next year.


Since then, many commentators have rightly focused on the crucial human rights, immigration, and labor issues at stake in the Hershey students’ protests. Most prominently, a delegation composed of professors and practitioners with expertise in international and domestic labor and employment law, has issued a scathing report on the situation, citing: 

  • fraud and coercion in recruitment and contracting  
  • failure to pay fair remuneration and provide safe and decent working conditions 
  • interference with a number of workers’ rights, particularly freedom of association
    by way of intimidation and threat of retaliation
  • lack of government oversight  

There is yet another aspect that merits our attention: the inflationary use of the term “education.” It appears that the “exchange visitor” visa programs are all administered, per State Department mandate, by public and private entities in charge of pre-selecting eligible candidates and initiating the first step in the visa process for them. Differently put, no au pair working legally in the U.S. today has arrived on our shores without the mandatory aid of such a sponsor—no short-term scholar either.


Accordingly, the organizations involved are a motley crew, ranging from universities to high school student exchange programs to research facilities to what the State Department terms “private sector” agencies. What ties them together is presumably their furtherance of international programs that are, in one way or another, as the U.S. government phrases it, “study- based.” While many of them, despite their lofty rhetoric, are nothing but commercially driven enterprises whose ostensible purpose is to sell a product line advertised as life-changing intercultural learning experiences for young people from around the globe.“


The truth is that the Hershey protests have finally brought to the public’s attention what has been sold under the brazenly assumed label of an “educational intercultural experience.”


For a foreign student working with an agency that calls itself “Council for Educational Travel, it might seem that he or she is dealing with a branch of the U.S. education system. What could appear safer? More reliable? More “educational?” Whatever the Hershey students’ individual motivations, they came to the U.S. to work, but also for the promise that the word education still harbors.


CETUSA apparently understood this only too well. CETUSA’s webpage  “for participants,” i.e., interested students, rehearses all the high points of the education sublime; the one intended for future employers mentions short-term staffing needs, dealing with seasonal work and the promise of enhanced diversity. “No matter if you run a little candy shop in Texas or run a huge processing plant in Alaska, international students are eager to gain work experience and support you and your business.” It is almost painful to read how eerily accurate the description on the employer-side of things has turned out to be.


This all begins to make sense when the student “nonprofit” sponsor is revealed as part of CET Management Group, a company which describes itself as dedicated to “international labor management and creative hiring solutions” and working in the language education and student exchange field. After the walkout in Hershey, it certainly looks as though the “nonprofit” arm was just another way to manage the “international labor” issues which are apparently the specialty of CET. It is, moreover, astounding how easily global corporations, like the one in question, are entrusted with the task of doing part of the sensitive immigration-related work of the U.S. government, including “monitoring” visa holders throughout their stay.


So what can “educational exchange” still stand for? Maybe government investigators, after having collected all the relevant data on possible labor and immigration law infractions, could ask the students themselves what promoting “mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by educational and cultural exchanges” (the government’s own definition of the J-1 visitor visa) in their eyes means. I am sure they would have a lot to say; and we could begin to trust in the word “study-based” again.  


Jutta Lorensen teaches at Penn State University, Altoona College in Pennsylvania.