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Regulation change pushes processors to focus on American food workers

Diane JeantetThe Cordova Times
Dianne Jeantet | The Cordova Times image

Youngsters in their 20s are pushing large and tall silver trolleys in a cloud of condensation. Rows of agile hands are working in rhythm as electronic music is blasting out of the speakers. Emptying, cleaning, gashing, filleting, wrapping ...  Walking through the PVC strips of the Copper River Seafood processing plant, is somehow remindful of entering a giant eastern european discotheque.

A vast majority of the company’s employees are young foreign students, coming to the United States to experience both the American culture and its work environment. Most of them are from Eastern Europe, as the J-1 Visa they are using to come to the country, was initially started during the Cold War era to strengthen U.S. relations with this part of the world.

The J-1 Visa counts a handful of programs allowing students, au pairs, teachers or interns to come to the country for a limited amount of time. One of them, called Summer Work Travel, is often used by the seasonal food and travel industries such as Copper River Seafood and has led them to heavily rely on a young workforce coming from abroad. According to several reports and inquiries, companies across the country have taken advantage of the program to bring in cheap labor and abuse a fragile workforce.

But following recent changes in the Summer Work Travel program regulation, this is the last year foreign students will be able to come to the United States to work for the fishing industry under the program, a change employers will be able to overcome by hiring under more expensive and complex visas or focus on seasonal American workforce. But companies under which the programs had been running smoothly for years, such as Copper River Seafood, say it’s also a regrettable one.

“Our first J-1 employee came here 10 years ago,” said Pip Phillingham, plant manager at the Copper River Seafood, sitting on an exercise ball behind his desk on the upper floor of the plant. He then began to enumerate a list of people that started working as J-1 students and had now been employed by the company for several years. At least seven people in eight years have become an integral part of the company. “This whole setup was working for everyone here, it was a win-win situation.”

However, not all employers treated their J-1 workforce similarly. Many incidents of serious abuse, from forced labor to sex trafficking, led legislators to make changes that will drastically change the face of the workforce in some seasonal industries. In December 2010, an Associated Press investigation found that students, who were promised good incomes and an opportunity to discover the American culture, were forced to work in strip clubs. Others were being paid less than $1.00 a day.

In 2011, 300 foreign students working at the Hersey Chocolate warehouse in Pennsylvania protested against harsh working conditions and unfair payments. The students, who came from countries including China, Kazakhstan, Poland, Nigeria and Ukraine, had paid between $3,000 and $6,000 each to travel to the U.S. The students were aware of the highly repetitive and laborious aspect of the work, which included lifting heavy boxes. But according to a spokesperson of the National Guestworker Alliance, the group that led the strike, after deducting housing and transportation costs from their income, students only had $100 to $140 left a week for 40 hours of work.

Students also spoke of intimidation during work hours and threats of deportation, when complaining about working conditions. Two months ago, workers at Walmart sued the company mentioning horrendous working conditions, describing how supervisors would sometimes beat them or lock them up in the plant for up to 24-hour shifts.

All these complaints have triggered several federal investigations, and any company working in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector, were banned as a whole from using the Summer Work Travel program. Some employers wonder whether tighter supervision from the Department of Labor, highly criticized for its lack of efficiency in the matter, and the stricter regulations included in the regulation changes could not have been enough.

“It’s easy to hire but it’s hard to find the kind of people we need,” explains an employee in charge of hiring at an Alaska food processing plant. The man, who did not want to be named in this article, said he was not worried about getting the quantity of people needed to run the plant, but worries about their ability to stay for a whole season.

A few years ago, the young man said the company had been wildly hiring without paying much attention to the screening process, and more than 200 people ended up filling about 30 positions in one season. People often quit after a few weeks realizing how demanding the work is, as warns Ocean Beauty on his website’s employment page:

Much of the work is repetitive due to mechanization and the large volumes of product processed. In short, the nature of the work is not typically glamorous ... Hours of work and days of work depend entirely upon availability of product. Processors, therefore, must be prepared for highly erratic work schedules. There may be periods of no work or minimal hours of work for a few days, to periods of 16 hours or more of work per day, seven days per week.

“The first year I started working here I was processing fish,” explains 27 year-old Olga Lotnosiarova, from Slovakia, a college student studying international business, who now lives in Czech Republic and is here for her fourth year in a row at Copper River Seafood. Lotnosiarova is also now employed in a mangement role.

To fulfill the “travel” part of her American experience, as mandated by her visa program, Lotnosiarova says many of the workers at the plant use some of the money they make to visit other cities or states once the season is over. The second time she came to the United States she went to Miami, the following year to Anchorage and this time she has booked tickets for a few nights in New York.

Co-worker Jarek Hanak, 25, studies management back in Czech Republic and is in his third year at the plant. Last summer, he borrowed bought a car in Anchorage and traveled all the way to Mexico. Hanak would have liked to come back for a fourth season, as it is much more difficult to get this kind of job back in Czech Republic.

Last year, Copper River Seafood started a new apprentice program to focus on a more local workforce. But the company says that with such a low entry job, paid just above minimum wage at about $8 an hour, they don’t know whether they will be able to attract the kind of workers they’re used to. “A way to change this would be to raise salary, but if you augment the price then the price of salmon goes up -- you can’t lower fishermen’s wages or they won’t fish for you,” explained Phillingham.

Another alternative would be to hire foreign students on a working visa, rather than the student J-1. But this lengthy process involves hiring lawyers and turns out to be very costly. The application is seen as too limiting and restrictive and unaffordable for a workforce of a hundred people.

“We treat them well, pay well, otherwise why so many people would want to come back every year?” said the students’ boss, Pip Phillingham, in a separate interview in his Copper River Seafood office. “The entire program is penalized because of these cases. It’s a shame.”

This article was originally published by The Cordova Times and is reprinted here with permission.