John Baer: Maybe Hershey foreign workers are all-day suckersAugust 20, 2011
IN HERSHEY, the American hometown of chocolate, the tops of streetlights look like Hershey Kisses. But there’s more than sweetness and light there these days.
The town, its company and its long-held image of All-American goodness are taking hits in a controversy involving hundreds of foreign-exchange students.
The students, on work, travel and cultural visas from China, Ghana and Eastern Europe, say Hershey gave them not culture but back-aching, production-line work on round-the-clock shifts at a candy-packaging warehouse.
They get about $8 an hour, minus charges for housing.
There are multiple ironies here.
Hershey’s founder, Milton Hershey, built the town, chocolate factory, park and more, and left his fortune to his school for underprivileged kids. He’s recognized among America’s great philanthropists.
The kids there now protest mistreatment and say their initial complaints drew threats of deportation. The State Department is investigating and a team of academic labor lawyers showed up yesterday to talk with students. Among the lawyers, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, is Sarah Paoletti, director of Penn’s Transnational Legal Clinic.
Another irony? Hershey laid off 700 full-time workers over the past four years and plans to lay off another 500 next year. One might wonder if cheap-labor kids from other countries were always part of the plan.
Meanwhile, Hershey reports a profit for the quarter just ended of $130 million, up from $46 million a year ago. And sales jumped 7.5 percent to $1.3 billion.
The company is distancing itself from the student flap on grounds that vendors and other temporary-hiring companies made all the arrangements. One such company now says it won’t use exchange students again, and all of the companies involved say they’ll offer the students a free trip to U.S. landmarks.
Problem is that all news coverage includes images of Hershey products. And the coverage has been less that sweet for Hershey.
An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times – “Not the America They Expected” – says the students’ “cultural experience” in Hershey is the sort of thing that “should shame us all.”