Hershey: Home of chocolate Kisses and corporate greed
BY KATHY JELLISON
Behind those chocolate Kisses and amusement rides, The Hershey Co. is hiding a secret ingredient, an exploited workforce of 400 18- and 19-year-old students from across the globe who are packaging chocolates. With unemployment at 7.8 percent in Pennsylvania and even higher nationwide, this is stickier than melted chocolate on a hot summer day.
In America on their summer breaks, these student workers are part of a guest-worker-cultural exchange program, bringing them only one impression of what America is becoming: a home for corporate greed to thrive.
Hershey’s Kisses are as American as apple pie; and Hersheypark promotes the core American family values that so many Pennsylvanians believe in.
All of which makes it difficult to stomach that Hershey, which we all thought of as a good ‘ol hometown company, has become like so many other corporations in our country that are driving wages down to keep their profit margins high.
Last year, Hershey CEO David West brought home $7.5 million. The company as a whole is doing quite well. In just the second quarter of this year, Hershey posted $130 million in profits, a 7.5 percent increase over last year.
While workers employed directly by Hershey’s are making $18 an hour for their efforts to create America’s favorite chocolate, the company has outsourced work through an outside company to package its candies. That company, Exel, is only paying foreign student workers from $7.85 to $8.35 per hour for hard, manual labor. This is part of an ongoing problem of subcontracting.
Many companies making big profit margins, contract work to outside vendors and operations such as this just to avoid paying decent wages for work and to avoid responsibility for workers who, at the end of the day, make their companies successful.
Through the J-1 guest-worker program, students working at the chocolate packing factory paid a fee from $3,000 to $6,000 to participate in the program. Their parents scraped together this money, just like many of us do for our kids, to try to give them a learning opportunity that they thought would help their children develop career-building and language experiences.
Imagine how these parents feel now, having sent their sons and daughters to a foreign country only to learn they have been deceived and treated poorly. Through the so-called “program,” students are forced to live four to a room in a seedy motel at a cost of $400 per week.
After the company deducts these expenses from students’ paychecks, the promised wages of $8.35 an hour have been reduced, in some cases, to $42 per week. That’s not even enough to pay for one day’s admission to Hersheypark.
Instead of an opportunity they and their parents thought would help them advance in their careers, these students fear deportation and the withdrawal of rights to ever return to the United States for standing up to this modern-day indentured servitude.
These young heroes should be an inspiration to all of us for their bravery and desire to stop exploitation of workers and provide jobs to those who need them in America. They dared to stand up to end the exploitation of cheap immigrant labor for the sake of higher profit margins and the abuse of workers.
With 600 Pennsylvania workers recently laid off from good, family-sustaining jobs at Hershey, this system of exploitation of temporary visa holders is bad for U.S. workers and bad for the nation’s economy. I feel privileged to stand with these student workers, who are not only fighting for their own justice, but also fighting against the injustice perpetrated by a corporate system skilled at avoiding responsibility to the hard-working people keeping them in business.
The Hershey Co.’s latest offer to provide one week of paid vacation to the students does not go far enough. Each student needs to be reimbursed the program fee they paid.
The Hershey Co. and other big corporations involved in this disgraceful behavior should be held accountable to the workers they exploit through the J-1 visa program and to all the hard-working Americans and those looking for jobs who are hurting because big corporations are choosing to make their profits through a race to the bottom for workers’ wages.
Kathy Jellison is president of SEIU Local 668.