U.S. Checks Worker Conditions – NYTimes – 8/25/11

New York Times

U.S. Checks Conditions for Workers in Walkout

By JULIA PRESTON

The Department of Labor and the State Department opened investigations this week of job conditions at a Pennsylvania packing plant for Hershey’s chocolates where several hundred international exchange students walked off their jobs last week, protesting low pay and strenuous work.

The Hershey Company, after seeking to stay out of the dispute for several days, came forward on Tuesday and responded to the complaints by offering them a day of educational events at the chocolate company’s headquarters in Hershey.

Kirk Saville, a Hershey spokesman, said the company had also asked the contractor that operates the vast plant in nearby Palmyra, Pa., to give the foreign students a fully paid week off, so that they could travel to see some sights in the United States.

“We were disappointed to learn that some of the students were dissatisfied with the cultural exchange element of the program,” Mr. Saville said. “We want to ensure that all the students have a positive experience of this program and leave the United States with an understanding of the Hershey Company.”

About 400 foreign students are working at the Palmyra plant under a summer cultural exchange program for work and travel offered by the State Department. About 120,000 students come to the United States each year on what are known as J-1 visas, which allow them to work for several months and then travel for a month as tourists. Their employment is organized by some 52 nonprofit sponsoring agencies in this country.

The students at the packing plant, who came from China, Romania, Ukraine, Nigeria and other nations, were employed through one of those agencies, the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A., based in California.

The students protested that they were forced to continuously lift boxes of candy weighing more than 50 pounds and work on night shifts beginning at 11 p.m. on production lines moving too fast for them to keep up. They said that after the council deducted as much as $400 a month from their paychecks for rent, they did not earn enough to cover their expenses or to afford to travel, or even to earn back the up to $6,000 many had paid to obtain the visas.

Leni Fortson, a spokeswoman for the Labor Department, said inspectors had opened two investigations since Friday. One will look into the students’ claims of wage-and-hour violations. And inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration visited the plant on Tuesday and Wednesday to investigate charges of safety violations.

Ms. Fortson said the department did not comment on continuing investigations, and could take up to six months to complete its inquiry.

A team of four State Department officials arrived Wednesday in Hershey to interview students who engaged in the protest and others who continued to work, as well as their employers. A State Department official said they would focus on the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A., to make sure it had properly monitored the students’ working conditions.

“It is absolutely critical that the program agencies fulfill their responsibility to secure proper employment for these kids, to monitor the conditions of employment and to respond appropriately to student complaints,” said Adam Ereli, acting assistant secretary of state overseeing the J-1 student exchange programs.

Rick Anaya, the chief executive of the Council for Educational Travel said his organization would pay for day trips so the students could visit either Philadelphia or the Gettysburg battlefield.
Most of the students returned to their jobs in recent days, according to a spokeswoman for Exel, the logistics company that operates the plant for Hershey’s.

Several dozen of them wore armbands as a way to continue their protest inside the plant. A small group of students did not return to work but will go on tours in Pennsylvania and New York organized by labor unions.

“There’s nothing wrong with paid vacations, but a paid vacation won’t cover up the truth” that Hershey knew, condoned and benefited from the low-wage labor of the students, said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, a labor group that helped the students organize their protest.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/25/us/25student.html?_r=1&ref=us

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