August 31, 2011
A protest with a bitter taste
Foreign students claim they were exploited during summer work in a Hershey facility.
EILEEN GODIN – Times Leader Correspondent
WILKES-BARRE – An international stage was set on Public Square on Tuesday afternoon as 15 students from foreign countries brought their allegations of exploitation at a Hershey plant to the Wyoming Valley.
In a public display dubbed “Fair and Good Jobs Rally,” the students drew attention by chanting, “Hershey, Hershey, can’t you see. What justice did to me,” while a man dressed as a chocolate Hershey Bar cracked a whip.
Local labor leaders said they organized the rally here to draw attention to corporate exploitation of workers.
The college students, ranging in age from 19 to 22, were from China, Nigeria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and Northern European countries. They said were happy to visit the Wyoming Valley after a summer of working 12 hours a day in a Hershey Chocolate warehouse, packing candy, for little net pay.
Roxanne Pauline, of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Area Labor Federation, said this is the students’ only opportunity to travel in the United States since being accepted into a J-1 visa cultural exchange program in May. A J-1 visa is a cultural exchange program designed to promote a better understanding of other countries.
The students return to their native countries next week.
Pauline said her goal was to welcome them and share with them the American culture.
“That is why they came here,” she said. “They are very interested in learning about the coal mining heritage,”
The students visited the Huber Coal Breaker in Ashley and toured Nanticoke, which has a strong connection to the region’s coal mining heritage.
Afterward, the students were treated to a dinner featuring local cuisine at the United Steel Worker Hall on Union Street, Wilkes-Barre.
Yana Brenzey, 19, from Ukraine, wanted to say a big “thank you” to all that made their trip possible.
“Today, we can see small towns, and business,” Brenzey said. “This is what we needed.”
Reflecting back on her experience, Brenzey said she did not know why the jobs in the program were not given to Americans who need them to support their families.
On the square holding a sign was Gil Klooney, a retired union worker. Watching the students voice their concerns, Klooney said the site was “beautiful.”
“All these different nationalities banding together to fight for their rights reminds me of the 1930s,” he said. “Today’s greed is so bad.”
He hopes the students will serve as role models for today’s youth to speak up.
The students paid $3,000 to $6,000 to participate in the J-1 visa program and worked for $7.85 to $8.30 an hour, according to The Associated Press. Rent, transportation fees and even the cost of their own timecards were deducted from their checks, leaving them with little money.
Roman Suzhou, 21, from Ukraine, said the students worked 12-hour days packing large boxes of candy.
“If we were not moving fast enough, they would say ‘go faster or be deported,’ ” he said. “We had enough spare time to sleep.”
The warehouse where the students had worked was run by Westerville, a vendor for Hershey. Westerville and SHS Staffing Solutions of Lemoyne, Pa., are being investigated by the state departments of labor and state.
Leni Fortson, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, said Tuesday that although she could not comment on the status of the investigation, she could say the Office of Wage and Hour Division launched its investigation on Aug. 19, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, began its probe Aug. 23.
Wage and Hours Division does not have a statute of limitations for a time to finish its investigation, but OHSA has six months to release its findings, Fortson said.
Brenzey said the students’ demands are simple.
“We want our money back,” she said. “We lost a summer and acquired injuries. Hershey broke the J-1 rules. And no more students should be sent here. Give the work to those who need it.”