August 18, 2011
Companies Point Fingers as Students Protest Conditions at Chocolate Plant
HERSHEY, Pa. — A day after hundreds of foreign exchange students walked off their jobs at a plant packing Hershey’s chocolates to protest low pay and physically draining work, executives at the Hershey Company and three other companies involved in the plant scrambled to sort out which one was responsible for the conditions that prompted the students’ complaints.
Among the four companies with a role in the huge plant where the foreign students were employed, each one pointed to another as being the primary manager in charge of monitoring the students’ work.
One of the companies, the Council for Educational Travel U.S.A., the nonprofit organization based in California that recruited the college students in their home countries and found the jobs for them at Hershey’s Eastern Distribution Center III, said it was “reaching out” to the students to address their concerns.
But on Thursday the students staged another protest, this time in the heart of America’s chocolate capital. About 150 of them held a rally in front of the Hershey Story Museum in the center of town, then they walked through the streets chanting — with a chorus of Turkish students singing in their own language — to passers-by. Many people driving through this working-class town honked and waved.
About 400 students, mainly from universities in China, Turkey and Eastern Europe, came to work at the packing plant under a summer cultural exchange program offered by the State Department. With visas called J-1, the students work for several months and then may travel around the country.
The students, including many from medical and engineering graduate schools, said they were expecting a relaxing summer job and opportunities to befriend Americans. They were encouraged, they said, by the Web site of the council, which shows laughing students on a highway before a panoramic mountain landscape, promising a chance to “live your dream.”
Instead, the students were dropped into the middle of a transformed American workplace, doing fast-paced production line and lifting work in round-the-clock shifts for wages of $7.25 to $8.35 an hour, under multiple layers of contractors. The students said they rarely saw American employees in their area of the plant, where they were packing Reese’s, Kit-Kat and other candies.
Their cultural exchange has been an unlikely connection with the American labor movement. A group called the National Guestworker Alliance helped them to organize, and they were joined by leaders from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the Service Employees International Union.
The Hershey Company said it had contracted day-to-day operations at the packing plant to Exel, a logistics company. “The Hershey Company expects all its vendors, including Exel, to treat employees fairly and equitably,” said Kirk Saville, a spokesman.
Exel contracted with a local labor supplier, SHS Staffing Solutions, to provide temporary workers, including the J-1 students, for the summer months when work is at a peak, said Lynn Anderson, a spokeswoman for Exel.
SHS Staffing said its main function was to handle payroll and schedules for the students. Exel announced late Thursday that it had instructed the staffing company not to hire any more J-1 visa student workers for the packing plant after the end of this summer. Rick Anaya, chief executive of the council, said every student had signed a job offer specifying what they would do before going to work at the plant. The packing job offer stated “frequent lifting of 24 kilograms,” boxes weighing more than 50 pounds. Mr. Anaya said that students had done the jobs in past years and he did not regard the lifting as inappropriate for them.
“One of the complaints students have raised is that it is hard work,” Mr. Anaya said in a statement. “That may be; we’re not sure. But the job offer is self-explanatory.”
One of the protesting students, Peng Lu, 21, an economics student from Yunan, China, said he struggled to lift the boxes. “Very heavy, sometimes we can’t do,” Mr. Peng said, in imperfect English. “But they ask, faster, faster,” he said. “If you can’t, they say, ‘Go home.’ ”
In a meeting at the plant last week, which a student recorded on a mobile phone, a manager advised them they could be fired and the council might send them back home if they engaged in a protest. After their meetings with the guest worker group, the students said, they had begun to worry that they had been used for jobs that local Americans could do, but for less pay.
They found sympathy from labor leaders. Dennis Bomberger, the business manager of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. local union that represents Hershey’s chocolate workers, said they had no direct part in the protest because they do not represent the packing plant. Mr. Bomberger noted that while that plant has grown, Hershey’s has reduced its full-time union employees by 700 since 2007, to a total of 1,500, with 500 more layoffs expected next year.
Rick Bloomingdale, the president of the Pennsylvania A.F.L.-C.I.O., said he admired the students’ risk-taking, especially since they were not in their own countries. Mr. Bloomingdale and two other labor leaders were arrested briefly during the protest in front of the packing plant on Wednesday.
He said he thought the conditions the students described were “a throwback to the company town of 100 years ago.”
Mr. Anaya said that the involvement of the unions had made the students less inclined to cooperate with his organization. He said he planned to offer all the students trips paid by the council to Philadelphia and Washington to visit tourist attractions.
“We believe that the experiences they have, while not always easy, will help to shape their views of the world and the U.S.,” Mr. Anaya said. “Most certainly they will have improved their English and their understanding of America.”
The students said one way they had learned English in Hershey was by inventing new protest slogans. “Who are we? The J-1 students. We are proud,” they chanted on Thursday on the street in heavily accented English.