Foreign workers stage walkout at Hershey packing plant

A few years ago, I heard a shocking story on This American Life about Indian guest workers in Oklahoma. The John Pickle Company had recruited and hired 52 guest workers from India, many of whom were highly educated, to come to Oklahoma to work in an oil industry parts factory. They were essentially held captive, without passports, and made to work long hours for almost no money and housed in a decrepit "dormitory", isolated by culture from the locals and by distance from support from family. Eventually, the guest workers made contact with members of a local church, who helped organize their escape and eventual financial restitution. Shocking that this kind of thing would happen in our country, I thought, but I managed to put that sickening feeling out of mind with the comforting thought that this was a one-off thing, that one ignorant individual might have thought he was helping people from a developing country by essentially enslaving them, but it slid under the radar only because it was a small-time operator with relatively few employees. But then I came across the news today in the New York Times that hundreds of foreign students from countries like China, the Ukraine, and Nigeria had been recruited to come to the United States on a "cultural exchange" program but were steered into backbreaking work at a Hershey's chocolate packing plant that didn't even compensate them enough to cover their costs of coming to this country. Here's how the program worked. The US State Department offers a J-1 Visa that allows students wanting to experience American culture firsthand to work for two months in the United States and then to travel for a month. It's actually a fairly good program when it's not abused - friends of mine have participated and raved about their experiences. In theory, students can travel to the US and make enough money during their two months to cover the expenses it took for them to come to the States and to see the sights for a month. Then they go back to their home countries and report on how wonderful life is in the United States and how welcoming and friendly the American people are. But in reality, the student workers in Palmyra, PA paid up to $6,000 in application and processing fees and traveled to a small town in Pennsylvania to work in a Hershey packing plant operated by Exel, a local contractor, where they were forced to perform back-breaking physical labor for low wages. Many of the students are training for highly-skilled careers in fields like medicine in their home countries, but working in the factory left them with strained backs and numb hands. The workers were videotaped and told that if they slowed from a constant rapid pace, they would be fired. If they complained, they would be fired. And if they took their complaints to other authorities, they would be fired. (Sensing a pattern?) They couldn't leave the job to work somewhere else, because this was the position listed on their visa. And they couldn't just go home, because they didn't have any money to change their ticket. One student, a medical student from Nigeria, complained that his hands are so stiff from work that he can hardly hold a pen nowadays. It's going to be awfully difficult to progress very far in his studies or career if he can't hold a pen to write, much less wield a scalpel. On top of it all, they were forced to live in company housing and charged exorbitant rent by the terms of their contract, paying far more for housing than their neighbors. This last bit was the last straw. Along with utility costs, the high rent was deducted directly from their $8.35 an hour pay, leaving them with almost no money to save up for traveling, much less pay them back for application fees and plane fare. When they compared their rent with neighbors, it became apparent that Exel was doing everything they could to extract as much as possible from a group of people who as guests in our country had very little power to defend themselves. Obviously, my heart first goes out to the students who went through hell at the packing plant. Instead of participating in a cultural exchange, they've been exploited because of their cultural isolation. Their spirits were broken down with their bodies. They'll go back to their home countries to tell everyone who will listen what horrible and cruel people Americans are, and from their own experiences, they'll definitely have justification for doing so. But the other side of it is that we've had a jobs crisis in this country for several years now. Instead of giving local Pennsylvanians jobs, Exel went after a steady rotation of exploitable foreign students, who were much easier to cow into submission as virtual indentured servants. I'm sure that at least some of the 7.6% of Pennsylvanians who are currently unemployed would love a job, any job, but then Exel wouldn't be able to charge them outrageous rents or work them to the bone without pushback from union organizers. In the end, pushback is what Exel and Hershey got. 200 students who were scheduled to start an afternoon shift yesterday walked out of the plant at 3pm, and other students finishing their early morning shift joined in. Enough workers walked off the job to stop or slow production at the plant. The students marched off the plant grounds chanting "We are the students, the mighty, mighty students!" in English and their own languages, joining local representatives of labor unions at the entrance to the plant. Several were arrested at a sit-in blocking the entrance, including Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania State Federation of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Neal Bisno, president of a Pennsylvania branch of the Service Employees International Union. It's not clear what's going to happen with the students, Exel, or Hershey now. In the case of the John Pickle Company, which I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the guest workers were allowed to return home, and the company ended up having to pay them almost $1.5 million in back wages and damages. But in this case, Hershey claims that it's an Exel managed plant, and Exel claims that the students were hired by a staffing agency, although I'm not sure what that has to do with their exploitative management practices. And the foundation responsible for managing the J-1 Visa program, the Council for Educational Travel, claims that it's trying to investigate the allegations, but that while they "would go out of [their] way to help [the students], it seems like someone is stirring them up out there.” That's a strange way to blame the victim. As for the students themselves, it's unclear whether they will be fired, fined, or whether they will receive some sort of restitution for what they've been through.

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