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?

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