Foreign Students in Work Visa Program Stage Walkout at Plant

25 Aug

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 said they were expecting to practice their English, make money and learn what life is like in the United States.

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.

Their experience of American society has been very different from what they expected.

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“There is no cultural exchange, none, none,” said Zhao Huijiao, a 20-year-old undergraduate in international relations from Dalian, China. “It is just work, work faster, work.”

Each summer, the State Department brings many thousands of foreign students to the United States on the international work-travel program, with visas that are known as J-1. Over the years, the program has successfully given university students from distant countries a chance to be immersed in everyday America and to make lasting friends.

But in recent years, the program has drawn complaints from students about low wages and unexpectedly difficult work conditions. It appears, however, that the walkout at the Palmyra plant is the first time that foreign students have engaged in a strike to protest their employment.

Article posted by Spencer Samaroo, Managing Director, Moo-Lolly-Bar
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Source and Photo: NY Times

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