Saturday, August 27, 2011

Update on Hershey's Funky Globalization

In my previous post, I discussed the State Department's J-1 visa program, which brings over foreign students for alleged cultural exchanges. The program was tied to a series of abuses at Hershey's packaging facility that led to a walkout by student workers and two stories in the New York Times.

What's the deal with this visa program? In reality, it turns out to be a way to import cheap workers for the summer, on a larger scale than I realized.

According to an op-ed piece by Fordham University law professor Jennifer Gordon in the New York Times, this program
has become the country’s largest guest worker program. Its “summer work travel” component recruits well over 100,000 international students a year to do menial jobs at dairy farms, resorts and factories — a privilege for which the Hershey’s students shelled out between $3,000 and $6,000. They received $8 an hour, but after fees and deductions, including overpriced rent for crowded housing, they netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour. Hershey’s once had its own unionized workers packing its candy bars, starting at $18 to $30 an hour. Now the company outsources distribution to a non-union company that hires most of its workers from the J-1 program.
Why would employers like Hershey go for such a program? Gordon writes,
the J-1 program is attractive to employers because it is uncapped and virtually unregulated; companies avoid paying Medicare, Social Security and, in many states, unemployment taxes for workers hired through the program. One sponsor authorized by the State Department even offers a “payroll taxes savings calculator” on its Web site, so potential employers can see how much they would save by hiring J-1 visa holders rather than American workers. Visa holders can be deported if they so much as complain, and cannot easily switch employers.
Well, that explains it. Companies get compliant summer workers and save on payroll taxes. The sponsors and contractors who arrange it all make good money. But the young people have little or no recourse to alter their situation and are stuck here (at least for the summer). Everybody's happy, it seems, but the foreign students who were expecting cultural exchanges. And if they don't like it, they can get deported.

As Gordon points out, these students are getting a taste of today's corporate America, which relies on outsourcing and subcontracting to avoid responsibility. It turns out that they do get real cultural exchange, a real taste of real America. Unfortunately, it's a bitter taste, not all the sweetness of Hershey's chocolates they were expecting.

Students, welcome to America!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Funky Globalization in Hershey, PA

Americans love Hershey chocolate bars and think of them as all-American. But some funky globalization-related things happened recently at the packaging facility that ships Hershey candies in Pennsylvania. And these happenings were definitely not all-American.

It turns out that Hershey, Inc. has been subcontracting with subcontractors who partner with another subcontractor to bring over groups of foreign university students to work in packaging facilities in the summers. The students coming over this year under the State Department's J-1 visa program were expecting to see the USA, earn a little money, and participate in cultural exchanges.

Instead, the only American culture these poor students were immersed in was our corporate culture. The 400 or so students were surprised to find themselves working physically demanding jobs at a packaging facility for Hershey, wrapping up Kit-Kat bars, Reese's candies, and Almond Joys. Many of them were forced to work on the night shift, and all of them were forced to work eight hour shifts under pressure and surveillance. Still, it wasn't the jobs that put the students over the edge. According to the New York Times, "the students said they decided to protest when they learned that neighbors in the apartments and houses where they were staying were paying significantly less rent."

Fed up, then, the students went on strike. While their immediate frustrations with their jobs caused them to walk out, their larger frustrations were with the brokers who promised them visions of cultural exchange, who forced them to pay up to $4,000 to come to the U.S., and who then over-charged them for rent. Many of the students were expecting to make a little money but now expect to return home having lost money on the deal. And all they got to see was Hershey Chocolate World! : (

How is globalization demonstrated here? For one thing, America's sales culture has been exported abroad: These foreign students learned all too well that you should never trust strangers who make big promises. Meanwhile, the students' desire to visit America is an interesting case study of international migration, as is the State Department's J-1 visa program. A cynic might say that the U.S. government is allowing the temporary migration of cheap guest workers for corporate interests, but the State Department classifies the J-1 visa as an Exchange Visa, which suggests an original intent to promote those exchanges. Students expecting to work in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory were expecting to participate in some global cultural exchange (Hersheys Chocolate World doesn't count).

And the most interesting globalization aspect in this story is the use of multiple subcontractors, a classic corporate and government tactic for outsourcing ultimate responsibility. After the story was published, the followup story pointed out how four different companies all blamed each other. This is what makes globalization so frustrating to people: no one is taking responsibility! This passage was especially telling:
The Hershey Company said it had contracted day-to-day operations at the packing plant to Exel, a logistics company. “The Hershey Company expects all its vendors, including Exel, to treat employees fairly and equitably,” said Kirk Saville, a spokesman.
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, said Lynn Anderson, a spokeswoman for Exel.
SHS Staffing said its main function was to handle payroll and schedules for the students.
Along with the non-profit organization that recruited the students to come to the U.S., the Council for Educational Travel U.S.A., we have four organizations with a hand in this. Of those four, who is responsible? Hershey? Exel? SHS Staffing Solutions? The Council for Educational Travel? The students? All of the above? It isn't clear.

In any case, we know about this story because the students and the labor union friends decided to create some noise. Whether or not their complaints are justified, this is a fascinating dimension of globalization. How many of these J-1 visas are granted every year? And how many of these foreign students come over expecting cultural exchange only to get stuck working in miserable summer jobs? And how many of those jobs could be filled by young American citizens? In a time of high unemployment, it makes you wonder.

Do readers out there have any experiences with foreign young people in summer jobs on these J-1 visas?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Chesterton's Defense of Repetitious Rituals

The British writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the most eccentric and famous twentieth century converts to Christianity. After a brief sojourn in the Church of England, he ended up in the Roman Catholic Church, a counter-cultural perch that informed his quirky views of just about everything toward the end of his life.

In researching my book, a friend recommended that I read a volume of his collected writings on economics, including a book he published under the title Outline of Sanity, which I did read and did enjoy. There, Chesterton defends his philosophy of Distributism, which he and his friend Hillaire Belloc framed as an alternative to both socialism and capitalism. In Chesterton's view, there was little difference between the two, because both led to giant bureaucracies with monopolies. (A contemporary Chestertonian would challenge anyone to identify major differences between navigating through government red tape and cellphone or computer companies' red tape. Both are giant, anonymous, remote, and have you over a barrel.)

The true alternative to these concentrations of power, for Chesterton, was to foster small, local forms of ownership and proprietorship, as in the Middle Ages. Although he could be accused of idealizing the peacefulness of the medieval economy, he was quite well-read in history, and his criticisms of modern economics are often trenchant (and occasionally tinged with nostalgia). Distributism's solutions are not always realistic, but its critique is spot-on.

More recently, I picked up a library copy of an earlier volume of G.K.C.'s collected works, composed of his writings on his conversion to Catholicism. In a book entitled The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic (1929), he responds to one of the common Protestant objections to Catholicism: the charge that it relies on empty, repeated rituals in its prayer and worship or what Chesterton calls "mechanical repetition." His response is worth quoting extensively, since it is so lively:
[A critic] says that we repeat prayers and other verbal forms without thinking about them. And doubtless there are many sympathizers who will repeat that denunciation after him, without thinking about it at all. But, before we come to explaining the Church's real teaching about such things, or quoting her numberless recommendations of attention and vigilance, or expounding the reason of the reasonable exceptions that she does allow, there is a wide, a simple and a luminous truth about the whole situation which anybody can see if he will walk about with his eyes open. It is the obvious fact that all human forms of speech tend to fossilize into a formalism; and that the Church stands unique in history, not as talking a dead language among everlasting languages; but, on the contrary, as having preserved a living language in a world of dying languages. When the great Greek cry breaks into the Latin of the Mass, as old as Christianity itself, it may surprise some to learn that there are good many people in church who really do say Kyrie eleison [Lord have mercy] and mean exactly what they say. But anyhow, they mean what they say rather more than a man who begins a letter with "Dear Sir" means what he says. "Dear" is emphatically a dead word; in that place it has ceased to have any meaning. It is exactly what the Protestants would allege of Popish rites and forms; it is done rapidly, ritually, and without any memory even of the meaning of the rite. When Mr. Jones the solicitor uses it to Mr. Brown the banker, he does not mean that the banker is dear to him, or that his heart is filled with Christian love, even so much as the heart of some poor ignorant Papist listening to the Mass. Now, life, ordinary, jolly, heathen, human life, is simply chockful of these dead words and meaningless ceremonies. You will not escape from them by escaping from the Church into the world. When the critic in question, or a thousand other critics like him, say that we are only required to make a material or mechanical attendance at Mass, he says something which is not true about the ordinary Catholic in his feelings about the Catholic Sacraments. But he says something which is true about the ordinary Court levee or Ministerial reception, and about three-quarters of the ordinary society calls and polite visits in the town. This deadening of repeated social action may be a harmless thing; it may be a melancholy thing; it may be a mark of the Fall of Man; it may be anything the critic chooses to think. But those who have made it, hundreds and hundreds of times, a special and concentrated charge against the Church, are men blind to the whole human world they live in and unable to see anything but the thing they traduce. (The Collected Works G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 3, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990], pp. 216-217).
We can boil G.K.C.'s points down to four: 1) the charge of "mechanical repetition" overlooks Catholic tradition, which acknowledges and deals with this very problem; 2) ordinary human societies also have many empty rituals, such as addressing a letter with "Dear" or the rituals of government; 3) many of these secular rituals are quite empty in comparison to repeated practices in worship, which believers find meaningful; and 4) the people who make this charge (ironically enough) are themselves repeating this charge without thinking about it.

To this, one can add another point: all worship practices involve some element of repetition. No low-church evangelicals would propose getting rid of sermons, even though sermons are given every week (empty ritual!). All worship is liturgical in the sense that it involves a set of patterns and practices; and most churches repeat these patterns and practices weekly.

For anyone interested in the liturgical year, this is an interesting defense against the church of "mechanical repetition."