Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The student cultural exchange from hell

On Wednesday, an incredible story showed up in my e-mail inbox from the folks at Jobs With Justice.

According to  Jobs With Justice, this summer the Hershey's Company has been exploiting hundreds of student guest workers who thought they were coming to the United States on a cultural exchange. These students reportedly paid between three and six thousand dollars to take part in this program. Instead of a cultural exchange, they have been packing chocolates for Hershey's under abusive conditions. After automatic deductions for rent in company housing, the students are said to make only $40-$140/week.

Some of the students themselves tell their grim story. I found a link to the following video included with the Harrisburg Patriot News coverage of a Wednesday protest at the warehouse where the students work. A civil disobedience action that was part of the protest resulted in three arrests.

These jobs would otherwise be living-wage union jobs for people living in Central Pennsylvania, who could surely use the work. The students' supporters have blamed the Hershey company's willingness to subcontract the jobs for creating the situation.

According to the Associated Press, "An official for the The Hershey Company said the packing plant is run by another company, Excel(sic), and like all vendors is expected to treat workers fairly." The Harrisburg Patriot-News reports that "The warehouse [where the students work] is operated by Exel, an Ohio-based logistical firm that provides services for businesses in the Harrisburg area."

A Hershey's company Web page says that company seeks to "provide high-quality Hershey products while conducting our business in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable manner." If they're sincere about being socially responsible, doesn't that include some responsibility to make sure that their contractors are also socially responsible?

The protester are demanding the end of exploitation of the student workers, the return of the fees they paid to come to the US, and that Hershey's hire local workers at a living wage to do this work. The students have also filed a complaint with the State Department alleging violations of the J-1 visa program under which they were brought to the United States. You can find more information about the protest at Web sites of the National Guestworker Alliance and Jobs With Justice.

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