Student workers protest at Hershey's, say their life not so sweet

Hershey_protest

For 400 foreign students, working at a Hershey's chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pa., may be less sweet than it sounds.

The National Guestworker Alliance filed a complaint Wednesday on behalf of 400 international students who had apparently paid $3,000 to $6,000 to participate in a U.S.-certified cultural exchange program. The complaint, sent to the U.S. Department of State, says the students were exploited by Hershey Co. and that the company takes unfair advantage of the program.

The students also launched a protest at the plant. Those protests were continuing Thursday, with the students, labor leaders and Pennsylvania workers who have joined the fight rallying in downtown Hershey, according to an email alert the alliance sent to The Times

The organization, which helped organize the protests, has dubbed their efforts the Justice at Hershey's Campaign.

The students, who hail from countries such as China, Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, Mongolia, Ghana and Thailand, were recruited at their universities to participate in the U.S. State Department J-1 visa program, described on a U.S. State Department website as an Exchange Visitor Program. The program leads to a three-month visa that allows students to work in the United States while learning about American culture and improving their English skills.

The goal of the program, according to the State Department's site, is to foster "global understanding through educational and cultural exchange."

Instead, says a representative of the National Guestworker Alliance, students who wound up at the Hershey's plant were living in "economic captivity," forced to pay for mandatory company housing that left them with $40 to $140 a week for 40 hours of work.

"They were desperate and feeling isolated," the organization's communications director, Stephen Boykewich, said in an interview with The Times.  

According to the complaint, conveniently made available to media, when the students complained about the violations of U.S. law, "they were threatened with deportation and other long term immigration consequences to remain quiet about the violations."

Hershey's did not respond to a Los Angeles Times' request for comment, but company officials told the Associated Press that the warehouse is run by a subcontractor and is expected to treat workers fairly. The AP also reports that a spokeswoman for the subcontractor says another company handles its guest worker program.

Of course, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that working at a chocolate factory might not be all sweet dreams and chocolate Kisses. Weren’t the Oompa-Loompas kind of indentured servants?

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--Deborah Netburn

Photo: A student protests the working conditions at a Hershey Co. warehouse operated by Exel in Palmyra, Pa. Credit: John C. Whitehead/The Patriot-News

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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