Students, Local Allies Demand End to Exploitation of Student Workers, Living Wage Jobs for Local Workers
PALMYRA, PA—On Wednesday, August 17, hundreds of student guestworkers from around the world, together with unemployed American workers and labor leaders, halted production during a factory sit-in at the Hershey Chocolate Company’s packing plant in Pennsylvania. Their demands: end Hershey’s exploitation of student guestworkers, and give living wage jobs to Pennsylvania’s workers.
Hershey’s security directed local police to arrest labor leaders who were conducting civil disobedience in support of the students. AFL-CIO Pennsylvania State President Rick Bloomingdale, SEIU President Healthcare Pennsylvania Neal Bisno, and SEIU Local 668 President Kathy Jellison were arrested during a sit-in at the factory gates, and remained in police custody several hours after the 3 p.m. sit-in.
“The workers of Pennsylvania are with you,” said Rick Bloomingdale. “The fight for good jobs isn’t just your fight, it’s our fight.”
Neal Bisno said, “We’ll stand with you and demand that Hershey’s be held accountable.”
“It takes courage, what you did today,” Kathy Jellison said. “You stood up for the working families of Pennsylvania, and we’re proud to join you.”
Godwin Efobi, a Nigerian student leader, told how the students organized and gathered hundreds of signatures in support of their demands in spite of threats of deportation by supervisors.
“We were tired of being exploitable labor for the Hershey’s Company,” Efobi said. “Every one of us paid $3,000-6,000 to come to America for what was supposed to be a cultural exchange. Instead we became captive workers at the Hershey’s plant.”
“After I came here, I learned that many people in Pennsylvania are desperate for jobs,” said Harika Duygu Ozer, a medical student from Turkey. “Why did they bring us here? Because they want to make profits from us instead of giving good jobs to local workers.“
“These students are on strike because they know the meaning of solidarity,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, which joined the students in the organizing the sit-in. “If these jobs had been living wage jobs under a union contract, 400 workers in Central Pennsylvania could have made at least $18 an hour.”
“That’s $15 million over the past year that did not come to Pennsylvania’s working families because Hershey’s subcontracted to have its chocolates packed by exploitable student guestworkers instead,” Soni said.
The students were joined by members of Chocolate Workers Local 464, SEIU, AFL-CIO, and Jobs with Justice.
The students said they would remain on strike until Hershey’s agreed to meet their key demands: end the exploitation of student guestworkers at the Hershey’s packing plant, and give living wage local jobs to Pennsylvania’s workers.
The students, represented by the National Guestworker Alliance, also filed an official complaint with the U.S. State Department alleging serious violations of the rules of the J-1 Visa program.
CONTACT: NGA Communications Director Stephen Boykewich
In Spring 2011, 400 university students from around the world—including China, Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, Mongolia, Romania, Ghana, and Thailand—were recruited at their home country universities to take part in the U.S. State Department’s J-1 visa program.
The students paid from $3,000-6,000 each to recruiters from a State Department-certified U.S. agency and its international affiliates. The students expected primarily a cultural exchange, with the chance to improve their English, meet Americans, and experience American culture, as well as to work for three months.
The students found themselves packing chocolates for the Hershey’s Chocolate Company. Students are paid from $7.85/hr to $8.35/hr. After automatic weekly deductions for rent and other expenses, they net between $40 and $140 per week for 40 hours of work. They are forced to live in company housing, for which they are charged exorbitant rent: $395/month each, twice the market rates paid by Americans in the same housing complexes.
Their economic reality leaves them little to no chance even to make back the $3,000-6,000 they paid to come. They have been offered no cultural exchange of any kind.
Students routinely experience severe pain in their backs, numbness in their hands, bruising on their arms and legs, and chronic exhaustion from their daily work. When they complain about conditions, they are threatened with deportation.
When the students began to organize in July 2011, the National Guestworker Alliance joined them to offer support and connect them with local workers and labor leaders.
The students faced immediate retaliation for their organizing. Students from all three shifts were summoned to “captive audience” meetings in the plant and threatened with deportation. Back home, the recruiters in their countries sent threatening emails to the student-workers, called their parents, and even flew into the U.S. from China to undercut the organizing.
The students refused to be intimidated. On Wednesday, August 17, they were joined by labor leaders and Pennsylvania workers in halting work at the plant and launching a strike.
Their key demands:
1. That Hershey’s return the $3000-$6000 that the student-workers paid for a cultural exchange; and
2. That Hershey’s make these jobs living wage jobs for Pennsylvania’s workers.