U.S. investigating work conditions for foreign students at Hershey warehouse

Posted: August 25, 2011

The U.S. Labor Department said Wednesday that it had opened two investigations into working conditions for foreign cultural-exchange students employed at a Hershey Co. candy warehouse in central Pennsylvania.

At the same time, the organizations responsible for employing the students were seeking to resolve a standoff with them by offering a week's paid vacation and cultural-enhancing day trips to Philadelphia, Amish country, and Gettysburg.

Hundreds of placard-waving students protested last week, including in Center City, over the conditions they encountered after arriving in the United States on J-1 visas.

The students contend that they were assigned manual labor for low wages in the candy warehouse and that they haven't had the time or money to learn about American culture - the main reason they participated in the program, which costs each student several thousand dollars.

Two outsourcing companies, Exel North American Logistics Inc. and SHS Onsite Solutions, run and staff the Hershey warehouse in Palmyra, Lebanon County. A nonprofit group, Council for Educational Travel, or CETUSA, sponsors the 375 foreign students who appear to be a large part of the warehouse's seasonal workforce.

Meanwhile, the labor group that helped organize the student protests, the National Guestworker Alliance of New Orleans, says it has e-mails from foreign students who worked at the Hershey warehouse in the past.

According to a complaint that the National Guestworker Alliance filed Aug. 17 with the U.S. State Department, the J-1-visa program is not used only for summer work.

"CETUSA," the complaint stated, "advertises their Summer Work Travel program as a way for employers to source workers year-round, in seasonal rotations that match school vacations in different parts of the world." The State Department oversees the visa program.

Rick Anaya, chief executive officer of CETUSA, said that his organization had brought foreign students to Pennsylvania for about 10 years and that it did not restrict participation to the summer months. But, he added, the organization does not rotate students into U.S. jobs. "We do not intend to displace American workers," Anaya said. "This is designed to bring university students over to the United States."

An official with Exel said the company would no longer use J-1 foreign students in the warehouse and would recruit employees locally.

As for the federal investigations, the Labor Department confirmed Wednesday that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Wage and Hour Division have opened separate investigations into conditions at the Hershey warehouse. The State Department also is expected to speak with the students.

One foreign-student worker, Harika Ozer, a 19-year-old Turkish woman, said she spoke with OSHA investigators. Some students would like their money back, she said. "What we have here is work, sleep, eat. They did not offer us any cultural things."

The controversy would seem to be a sensitive one for the Hershey Co., which is controlled by a charity that finances the nation's richest residential school for impoverished children, the 1,800-student Milton Hershey School.

The $7.5 billion Hershey charity is the legacy of Milton and Catherine Hershey, and its largest single asset is the controlling interest in the candy company.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge is a member of the candy company board, earning about $200,000 a year in directors' fees. Former Attorney General LeRoy S. Zimmerman was a director on the candy company's board before stepping down earlier this year. Zimmerman, one of the state's most powerful Republicans, remains chairman of the Hershey charity that controls the candy company.

"Hershey cares deeply about all of its employees and those of its vendors," Hershey spokesman Kirk Saville said in a statement Wednesday. "We were disappointed to learn that some of the students were dissatisfied with 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. The Hershey Co. has requested that Exel, SHS, and CETUSA provide one week of paid leave for students to immerse themselves in U.S. culture."


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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