Inquirer Editorial: Students say Hershey treated them like serfs

Posted: September 03, 2011

This was not the America that foreign students expected to find when they signed up to work at a Hershey Co. candy warehouse in central Pennsylvania.

They believed that they would get a chance to experience American life and culture, practice their English, and earn money to take back home. But what sounded like a sweet deal has been anything but that - if troubling allegations made by the students are true.

They say they were misled by recruiters and have been mistreated as cheap, hired help to fill a labor shortage in candyland.

The 375 students came to the United States from Ghana, Moldova, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine under a State Department J-1 visa program that allows them to work for several months. Each was to be paid between $3,000 and $6,000, but that's money they are afraid they will never see.

The students say they were offered low wages to perform manual labor, lifting 50-pound boxes in the Hershey warehouse in Lebanon County. The students made $8.35 an hour. But after they paid grossly inflated housing costs and other fees, they netted $40 to $140 per week. How ironic that the students worked so close to the Milton Hershey School, the richest residential school for poor children in the country.

It appears that the cultural-exchange students were trapped in a tangled web of outsourcing and bureaucracy at its worst.

Hershey left it to two outside companies to staff and operate the warehouse. The candymakers apparently turned a blind eye to what the students sponsored by the nonprofit Council for Educational Travel were experiencing until the controversy erupted.

To get Hershey's attention, the students staged protests that embarrassed the candymaker and other organizations that hired them. They have since been promised a week's paid vacation and cultural outings.

But the students also are demanding a refund of fees that they paid, which seems to be a reasonable request. They also want their jobs given to any displaced local workers.

That should not be the end of this sorry story, however. Changes are needed to provide better oversight for other unsuspecting students.

That's why it's good to see that the U.S. Labor Department has launched two investigations into working conditions at the Palmyra facility. The State Department is also looking into what happened.

Thousands of international students come to the United States every year to work summer jobs and see the face of America. Most have have had rewarding experiences. The Hershey incident shouldn't be a sweeping indictment of all cultural exchange programs. But it raises concerns that can't be ignored.

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