Foreign Guestworkers at Hershey Facility In Pennsylvania Protest Wages, Conditions
Daily Labor Report
A group of 400 foreign student guestworkers employed through the J-1 visa program and working at a Palmyra, Pa., Hershey Co. warehouse have staged several protests in recent days over their wages and working conditions, and supporters of the workers say the protests resulted in the shutdown of the facility Aug. 17.
The workers, who came from as far away as Turkey and Nigeria and paid between $3,000 and $6,000 each to come to the United States for what was billed as a cultural exchange program, are being supported by the National Guestworker Alliance, a group that signed a partnership agreement earlier this year with the AFL-CIO (90 DLR A-11, 5/10/11).
The warehouse, which is located near Hershey manufacturing facilities, is owned by Hershey but operated by Exel, a Westerville, Ohio-based logistics company contracted by the chocolate maker. Exel, in turn, contracted with SHS Staffing Services, who found the workers through an agreement with Council for Educational Travel USA (CETUSA), a California-based firm that sponsors foreign students for J-1 Visas.
Workers are employed at the facility to pack chocolate products into boxes and prepare them for shipment.
J Visas Intended for Cultural Exchange.
The J visa program was created during the Cold War era to foster cultural exchanges, and is administered by the State Department. In 2010, some 132,000 foreign students came to the United States on J-1 visas for a four-month period of work and travel during the summer.
In a YouTube video posted Aug. 16 by NGA, some of the workers described how the work at the warehouse was grueling and extremely fast-paced. The students, many of whom have college degrees from their home countries, said they were threatened with termination and return to their countries if they could not keep up with the pace of the work.
In addition, students have complained about large deductions from their promised wages. Stephen Boykewich, a spokesman for NGA, told BNA Aug. 22 that the students were told they would earn between $7.85 and $8.35 per hour, but that they ended up making as little as $40-$140 for a 40-hour workweek. In the video posted online, one worker said when deductions are factored in he made less than $5 per hour, and that he suffered pain in his wrists and his back.
Alleged Profit From Housing Costs.
Boykewich said the workers were charged through payroll deductions about $395 per month for a bed in a two-bedroom apartment with three other foreign workers, meaning the apartments would bring in rent of about $1,600 per month.
This is well above the market rate for two-bedroom apartments in the area, Boykewich said, and he accused the company of making a profit on the housing costs. Students came to the realization that they were overpaying for their housing by talking to their neighbors, who paid far less in rent, Boykewich said.
Other deductions the students reported include the cost of transportation to and from the packing facility, and an initial mandatory drug test, Boykewich said.
“After they arrived, [the students] found themselves essentially captive workers,” Boykewich said, because they were threatened with termination and were unlikely to make back the amount of money they had paid to come to the United States.
Boykewich said operations at the facility was shut down Aug. 17 when the workers staged a sit-in, but that it resumed on subsequent days, despite continued protests. It was unclear whether replacement workers had been brought in to fill in for the J-1 students.
In addition, several law professors met with the workers Aug. 19 and said they would conduct an investigation into the legal aspects of the situation.
Workers Met With Local Union.
Since organizing with NGA, the students also have met with members of Chocolate Workers Local 464, an affiliate of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, and union officials are supporting them.
According to NGA, the students now are calling on Hershey’s to make their jobs “living-wage” jobs for Pennsylvania residents, and some of them are embarking on a tour of the state to meet with Americans to gain support for their cause.
NGA said the students also were seeking refunds of the thousands of dollars they had paid for the J-1 visa program.
Boykewich said the majority of workers had returned to work as of Aug. 22, but would constantly be on the lookout for labor violations at the plant.
Representatives of Hershey, CETUSA, and SHS were not immediately available for comment Aug. 22. But Lynn Anderson, a spokeswoman for Exel, told BNA that Exel’s “experience with the student workers runs counter to what has been outlined by a small number of the students.”
Exel to Discontinue Hiring of J-1 Workers.
“The students working in our distribution center have been showing up to work, doing a great job, and the site has continued to meet its overall production goals over this past week,” Anderson said.
In addition, Anderson asserted that “the students assigned to work in the Exel distribution center were aware of what their job roles would be before they arrived in the U.S.,” and that when the sponsoring organization, CETUSA, received complaints from some of the workers, they were offered the chance to change positions, but only 10 opted to do so.
Anderson added that Exel has instructed SHS to discontinue sourcing workers for the plant from the J-1 program after the current group of workers ends its time there.
Anderson provided BNA with a “job offer” form she said the workers were required to sign, which described the job duties at the distribution center. According to the form, the jobs would entail lifting packages of up to 24 kilograms (53 pounds) and standing for an entire eight-hour shift. The document also describes the facility as a “fast paced environment.”
Hershey Comments on Facebook.
But Boykewich disputed the idea that the job offer forms were accurate. A truer job offer, he said, would have said workers would pay thousands of dollars “for a cultural exchange program that you will never receive, and that no company from Hershey’s on down to CETUSA ever had any intention of offering, even though it’s the one and only purpose of the J-1 visa program according to the U.S. State Department.”
“A piece of paper from that says ‘$8.10/hour’ and ‘fast paced environment’ doesn’t even come close to describing it,” Boykewich said.
Although Hershey officials did not respond to BNA’s request for comment, the company said on its Facebook page Aug. 17 that the company “enjoys a strong relationship with its 13,000 employees; however, the facility in question is not staffed or managed by Hershey’s but a third party, Exel. Exel is a supply chain and logistics company that works with many large companies including Hershey’s. As a good corporate citizen, we expect our vendors to treat employees equitably and fairly.”
In an Aug. 19 post, the company said it “is taking the concerns of the student workers at the facility in Pennsylvania very seriously,” and that “we strongly support Exel’s decision to discontinue the use of the J-1 program in staffing the facility.”
Meanwhile, a State Department spokesman told BNA Aug. 19 that the department was sending staff to the facility to investigate the situation, and “will work with private sector sponsors and J-1 visa partners involved to ensure compliance with all program directives.”
Copyright 2011, The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.