‘Pleas helpp.’ Exchange student begs State Dept to get him out of factory job

A Moldovan student on a State Department foreign exchange program wrote the department a pleading e-mail complaining of the working conditions at a Hershey packing factory, The New York Times' Julia Preston reports.

"Pleas hellp," Tudor Ureche, a college student who was participating in the U.S. government's J-1 visa program, wrote in the email. He added that he was suffering from severe back pain from the work, and that his bosses said his temporary visa would be revoked if he complained.

Ureche never received a response. But two months later, at least 200 foreign exchange students walked out of the Pennsylvania factory in protest, saying they spent thousands of dollars to pay for their cultural exchange visa only to end up in grueling factory jobs. (The factory packed Hershey's candy, but was operated by a subcontractor.)

Cetusa, the group that the government paid to organize the students' stay in America, responded to the negative attention garnered by the protest by "arranging for students to have a paid week off from the plant and by paying for two trips to historic sites in Pennsylvania," Preston writes. "The Hershey Company hosted a daylong visit to its headquarters so students could learn about its business strategies."

Critics of J-1 visas are using the incident to argue that the exchange program, created during the height of the Cold War to spread American values abroad, is now being exploited by employers who want cheap labor. (Employers save on Social Security and other taxes when they employ temporary foreign workers.)

With such high unemployment at home, the traditional J-1 jobs at amusement parks and seaside resorts are now more attractive to Americans, critics argue. J-1 workers pay up to $6,000 to participate in the program.

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