Democracy Now: Alleging Captive Labor, Foreign Students Walk Out Of Work-Study Program At Hershey Plant

Good for these kids for doing the right thing and for exposing yet another abuse by corporate America and their race to the bottom on wages and exploiting foreign students rather than paying workers in the local community a living wage. From

[oldembed src="http://www.democracynow.org/embed_show_v2/450/2011/9/1/story/alleging_captive_labor_foreign_students_walk" fid="13"]

Good for these kids for doing the right thing and for exposing yet another abuse by corporate America and their race to the bottom on wages and exploiting foreign students rather than paying workers in the local community a living wage.

From Democracy Now -- Alleging Captive Labor, Foreign Students Walk Out of Work-Study Program at Hershey Plant:

We look at the story of 300 foreign students who came to the United States as part of a work-study program and found themselves engaged in what they refer to as captive labor at a Hershey’s packing plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. The students — from Eastern Europe and Asia — went on strike two weeks ago, after they were reportedly required to lift heavy boxes, work eight-hour shifts beginning at 11 p.m., and stand for long periods of time while packing candy on a fast-moving production line. Federal agencies have launched four investigations into the alleged exploitation. The walkout apparently marks the first time that foreign students have engaged in a strike to protest their employment. The guest workers are demanding a return of the $3,000 to $6,000 each student paid for the cultural exchange program to work at Hershey, that Hershey end exploitation of J-1 student cultural exchange workers, and that the 400 jobs the guest workers filled instead be given to local workers paid a living wage. We speak to two of the student guest workers who took part in the strike at the Hershey plant: Decebal Bilan, an economics student from Romania, and Zhao Huijiao, a foreign languages student from China. We are also joined by Saket Soni, director of the National Guestworker Alliance. "Today the J-1 program has essentially become the United States’s largest guest worker program," says Saket. He notes that while students are recruited ostensibly for cultural exchanges, "they do learn about American culture, just the wrong part of American culture."

Some highlights from the transcript below the fold.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the story of 300 foreign students who came to the U.S. as part of a work-study program and found themselves engaged in what they refer to as captive labor at a Hershey’s packing plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. The students from Eastern Europe and Asia went on strike two weeks ago after they were reportedly required to lift heavy boxes, work eight-hour shifts beginning at 11:00 p.m., and stand for long periods of time while packing candy on a fast-moving production line. Federal agencies have launched four investigations into the alleged exploitation.

The student workers recorded an open appeal to Hershey’s CEO John Bilbrey. They’re still waiting for an official response. Here’s a clip from their appeal. [...]

AMY GOODMAN: The students came to the United States through a long-established State Department summer J-1 visa program that allows them to work for two months and then travel. However, in recent years, the program has drawn complaints from students about low wages, unexpectedly difficult work conditions.

It appears, however, the walkout at the Palmyra plant is the first time foreign students have engaged in a strike to protest their employment. The guest workers are demanding a return of the $3,000 to $6,000 each student paid for the cultural exchange program to work at Hershey, that Hershey end its exploitation of J-1 student cultural exchange workers, and that the 400 jobs the guest workers filled instead be given to local workers paid a living wage. The students have collected more than, oh, 63,000 petition signatures from Americans supporting their demands.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A spokesman for Hershey’s, Kirk Saville, said the company—the chocolate company did not directly operate the Palmyra packing plant, which is managed by a company called Exel. He declined our offer to come on the show but did provide this written quote: "Hershey cares deeply about all of its employees and those of its vendors. We were disappointed to learn that some of the students were dissatisfied in the cultural immersion element of the program. Hershey is partnering with the students’ employers to address this in a manner consistent with Hershey’s values. We strongly support Exel’s decision to discontinue the use of the J-1 program in staffing this facility," end of quote. [...]

AMY GOODMAN: Saket Soni, you’re the director of National Guestworker Alliance. Talk about the J-1 program, how these students who came to the United States to do travel and to work ended up doing this kind of full-time work at the plant.

SAKET SONI: Well, Amy, you know, this is really the story of how far a corporation is willing to go to cut costs, to deny permanent good jobs to local people, and to maximize profits. The J-1 visa program was started in 1961. It was part of the United States’s effort to win the Cold War. It was part of a goodwill campaign to try to bring in foreign students, like them, and have them meet Americans and learn about the American way.

Unfortunately, we’ve come a long way in what the American way is. Today the J-1 program has essentially become the United States’s largest guest worker program. Students like them, from across the world, are recruited ostensibly for cultural exchanges. And they come in, and, like them, they do learn about American culture, just the wrong part of American culture. They learn about corporate greed, and they learn about how American corporations use captive workers.

So these workers paid $3,000 to $6,000 apiece. They were expecting work and travel. Instead, they came into a company town, were forced to live in company housing, charged quite a large sum of money, way above market value, for the privilege of living in company housing. And, most importantly, when they started to organize, they faced threats and retaliation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you’ve made the point that companies like Hershey have become less of a direct manufacturer and more of a marketing agent and that they spin off their manufacturing to these suppliers now.

SAKET SONI: That’s right. That’s right. I mean, you know, the quote from Hershey that you had up on the screen a little while ago is very instructive. These used to be permanent jobs inside the Hershey chocolate factory. Hershey’s then took those jobs out of the factory, outsourced them, and created four layers of subcontractors between them and these students.

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