February 10, 2012; Source: Philadelphia Inquirer | The U.S. State Department has clamped down on the nonprofit CETUSA, citing years of widespread abuse in its loosely-regulated cultural exchange visa programs. The recruiting agency has been banned from a popular J-1 visa program for two years.
Last year, CETUSA supplied 400 foreign “Summer Work Travel” (SWT) students to a Hershey Co. candy packaging plant (out of a total of 5,000 to 6,000 that CETUSA supplies via the SWT program—which is just one of the J-1 visa programs it engages in—annually). The students are officially supposed to have the opportunity to learn English and mingle with everyday Americans while working in safe, social jobs.
Despite these “bon voyage” expectations, the Hershey experience at the Palmyra, Penn. factory was more like a nightmare for these de facto “guest-workers” from Turkey, Ukraine and other countries. Students reported working long, monotonous hours in dangerous conditions and were paid wages far below state and federal minimum rates, thus leaving them with neither the time nor funds to, as Simon and Garfunkel put it, “look for America.” The students brought their plight to the attention of the nation in August of last year (see NPQ’s prior coverage here) when they gathered to protest on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, Penn. The strike alerted the public to the issue and prompted the State Department to investigate in Hershey. “They [CETUSA] are done as far as work travel is concerned,” promised senior State Department official Rick Ruth.
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Labor organizations have for some time been sounding the horn with oppressed students, and some call the State Department’s action against CETUSA “a good first step,” as Stephen Boykewich, spokesman for the National Guestworker Alliance, stated after the ban was announced. “The problem is larger than one recruiting agency,” Boykewich said. “The Hershey case demonstrates that what was supposed to be a cultural exchange program has been transformed into America’s largest and most poorly regulated guest-worker program.”
The constellation of J-1 visa programs provides U.S. entry for over 100,000 students annually. Hershey Co. has pled ignorance, asserting that the foreign students were employees of an outsourcing agency. However, after the strike last year, Hershey publicly stated that they will avoid using J-1 visa-holders at the Palmyra packaging plant. –Louis Altman