Each year, hundreds of thousands of J-1 visas are available for overseas students to visit the United States. The program was designed in an effort to promote America to foreign students. The original intention was a cultural exchange program in which the foreign students would learn English and travel.

However, some United States employers see dollar signs when they think of J-1 visas because they are able to take advantage of the students as non-unionized and low-wage employees. Unfortunately, in certain circumstances, these employers have placed the foreign exchange students at risk of workplace accidents.

For example, a contractor working for the Hershey plant in Pennsylvania has been employing young students in often-difficult occupations. Last month, about 300 hundred students went on strike and protested dangerous work conditions and sub-standard living arrangements at the plant. Some of the students said that they were threatened with deportation if they ever complained.

The dangerous conditions that the students were protesting included:

  • Hard labor intensive work
  • Lifting very heavy boxes
  • Stacking pallets dangerously high
  • Stacking 60-70 pallets each day
  • Avoiding collisions with forklifts while working

In addition, the students were allegedly forced to pay for sub-standard living conditions, in which they had no privacy. The students were forced to share one-bedroom apartments with up to three other people, sometimes of different genders and regardless of language differences. Reportedly, the company deducted rent payments directly from workers’ paychecks.

Recently, these student workers organized themselves and went on strike because of the conditions that they have been enduring. These students believe that Hershey exploited its student workers for its own profit by placing their health and safety at risk of serious work-related injuries.

The U.S. Department of Labor, among other agencies, is beginning an investigation into the safety at the Hershey plant in Pennsylvania.

Source: Labor notes, “Hershey Still Silent after Student Guestworkers Strike,” Stephanie Luce, Sept. 20, 2011