Foreign students who work at Hershey warehouse say ‘we have our rights’
Published: Wednesday, August 17, 2011, 11:49 PM Updated: Thursday, August 18, 2011, 11:38 AM
By NICK MALAWSKEY, The Patriot-News
As a cultural exchange worker, she expected to come to the United States and work at a job that would expose her to the country and the people in central Pennsylvania.
Maybe she’d have a chance to visit New York or Washington, D.C.
Instead, she said she’s spent the last three months lifting boxes of Hershey’s Kisses for $8.35 an hour in a warehouse with 400 other foreign students.
Her rent, about $400 a month, is automatically deducted from her paycheck. What’s left over must cover her expenses.
When she goes home to an apartment in Middletown that she shares with three other foreign students, she’s exhausted.
“I pick up boxes that are 40 pounds — I weigh 95 pounds,” she said. “I complain. I say, ‘I want another job.’ They say if I do not work here they will cancel my visa and I will go home.”
On Wednesday, months of frustration boiled over and Brenzey and her fellow student workers hit the picket lines outside of The Hershey Co.’s Eastern Distribution Center III, a 1-million-square-foot location at the terminus of Hersheypark Drive.
“We fight for our rights, we have our rights,” Brenzey said.
They stood outside the center’s gates for about an hour before relocating to downtown Hershey, when they held a sit-in outside The Hershey Story museum.
Harun Burga is a mechanical engineering student from Turkey who before his visit hoped to work at a factory in his country.
When he came to the United States, he knew he would be working in a production facility. But he said he signed onto the J-1 Visa program, run by the State Department, to learn about the U.S. and improve his English.
But he has had little opportunity to practice, he said.
“There are five languages being spoken in this warehouse, none of them is English,” he joked.
“We had a dream: America. … Everybody has a dream of coming to America. And everybody wants to travel, wants to improve English,” Burga said. “But we are just working, sleeping and sometimes eating.”
It wasn’t clear what the students were looking for: Better wages, better conditions, different jobs and a chance to work alongside Americans were among their demands.
The National Guestworker Alliance, which organized Wednesday’s picket action and posted an online video interviewing several of the foreign students, said the students wanted to be repaid for the costs of their trips and wanted the warehouse jobs to be given to local workers.
They’ve vowed to continue to picket until their demands are met.
The warehouse is operated by Exel, an Ohio-based logistical firm that provides services for businesses in the Harrisburg area.
It subcontracts its temporary work force to a company named S.H.S. OnSite Solutions, said Lynn Anderson, Exel spokeswoman.
“We don’t directly hire these students,” she said. “So we’re not really involved in the J-1 visa program.”
Anderson said the students fill temporary seasonal employment needs at the distribution plant that otherwise would be difficult to staff.
Wednesday’s protest was the first complaint the company had heard about conditions at the facility, she said. S.H.S did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The Hershey Co., which owns the facility, said in a statement that it expects all of its vendors, including Exel, to treat their employees fairly and equitably.
The company directed further questions to Exel.
The students arrive in the U.S. in waves. During the winter, they come from the Southern Hemisphere, from countries such as Brazil, Argentina and India. In the summer, students on break from colleges and universities in Russia, China and eastern Europe fill temporary jobs at the warehouse.
In order to come to the United States, they have to have several things, including a local sponsor. In the case of these students, it’s the nonprofit company the Council for Educational Travel, USA, or CETUSA.
The company sponsors the students and arranges for them to have work when they arrive.
Rick Anaya, the CEO of CETUSA, said he was surprised at the students’ actions and felt their complaints were unjustified.
Anaya said the students were paid rates comparable to those of local warehouse workers and if they didn’t feel they were being educated in American culture, well, that’s partially their fault.
“We can provide the environment … but as far as making contact with Americans, that’s up to the kids,” he said. “We provide the setting, but it’s up to them to make the effort.”
Anaya did say his nonprofit would review its contract with S.H.S. and has met with the student workers to try and help them.
“We don’t want the kids to be unhappy,” he said.
But they are, said Mehmet Ozysrek, another Turkish student. He said he no longer trusts CETUSA. He said the students have contacted CETUSA but the agency response was to tell the students: “If you are not happy, go home.” The problem is, he said, he doesn’t want to go home. He wants to experience America.
“Nobody wants to be here. We don’t like the factory, we don’t like CETUSA,” he said. “But we still like America.”