Democracy Now! TV
Sep. 1, 2011
We look at the story of 300 foreign students who came to the United States as part of a work-study program and found themselves engaged in what they refer to as captive labor at a Hershey’s packing plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania.
The students — from Eastern Europe and Asia — went on strike two weeks ago, after they were reportedly required to lift heavy boxes, work eight-hour shifts beginning at 11 p.m., and stand for long periods of time while packing candy on a fast-moving production line. Federal agencies have launched four investigations into the alleged exploitation.
The walkout apparently marks the first time that foreign students have engaged in a strike to protest their employment. The guest workers are demanding a return of the $3,000 to $6,000 each student paid for the cultural exchange program to work at Hershey, that Hershey end exploitation of J-1 student cultural exchange workers, and that the 400 jobs the guest workers filled instead be given to local workers paid a living wage.
We speak to two of the student guest workers who took part in the strike at the Hershey plant: Decebal Bilan, an economics student from Romania, and Zhao Huijiao, a foreign languages student from China. We are also joined by Saket Soni, director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “Today the J-1 program has essentially become the United States’s largest guest worker program,” says Saket. He notes that while students are recruited ostensibly for cultural exchanges, “they do learn about American culture, just the wrong part of American culture.”