Hershey workers: Foreign students’ protests seem legitimate
Patriot News editorial board
August 21, 2011
All the ramifications of the foreign exchange students’ protests last week at facilities where Hershey chocolate is packaged are yet to be seen, but a few things already are clear.
First, the expectations of the international students were far different from their reality, packaging chocolate in a Hershey warehouse. Second, through the layers of contractors and companies involved, there is a lot of finger pointing and “don’t look at me” reaction going on. Hundreds of foreign students staged a walkout at the warehouse on Wednesday and then held oher rallies, saying a summer program they paid thousands of dollars to go on was not the cultural exchange they anticipated.
They work in warehouses with other foreign students, and their paychecks are smaller than expected because housing costs, which they had no control over, are automatically deducted.
The Hershey Co. says it does not hire workers for the warehouse.
Exel, a company in charge of day-to-day operations at the facility, says it contracted for the workers with a local labor supplier, SHS Staffing Solutions, which, in turn, says it only handles payroll and schedules for the students.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department, which says it is investigating, runs the J-1 program that gave the students visas that brought them to the United States, and the Council for Educational Travel U.S.A, a nonprofit organization that recruited the students for the warehouse work, says students knew what they were getting into.
That is confusing enough. Add to the mix labor unions, which say they got involved in the protest to support the students, but also were quick to rally around and push the notion that these warehouse positions could be held by American workers.
Cutting through any agenda and scapegoating, the concerns of the foreign students do seem legitimate. They say they anticipated making more money — some spent as much as $6,000 on the program expecting to make it all back — and having time to travel and meet Americans.
In particular, the Council for Educational Travel U.S.A. says the contracts the students signed made clear what kind of work they would be doing. That might be true, but it is certainly not the sense you get from the photos and descriptions on its website. Smiling students mugging for the camera wearing Mickey Mouse ears, playing in the snow and sticking their heads out of a car on a highway with a beautiful mountainous vista behind them suggest a far different trip to the United States than working a night shift in a warehouse.
“Our motto is ‘Founded on Friendship,’¤” are the opening words on the website. It is easy to see why students would believe there would be time to travel and “live your dream” as the website promises.
Whether these jobs should be held by American students, out-of-work laborers, union employees or seasonal workers is a different conversation for a different day. What is clear now is these 400 foreign students feel deceived.
The companies involved should make amends in some way. We should be sure the students see more of America than factory walls.
In the end, these students have learned a lot about the U.S.
They now understand the right to protest in a democracy, and let’s hope in the end they take away other positive lessons from their time in our country.
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