Exploited student workers at Hershey – National Consumers League

By Michell K. McIntyre, Project Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

Chocolate, sweets and indulgence—these are the things that come to mind when the Hershey Company is mentioned.  But now some might add irresponsible, exploitative and negligent.

On August 17th, 2011, hundreds of international exchange student workers (J-1 visa program participates) staged a sit-in at a Hershey packing facility and broke their silence on the exploitation they suffered at the hands of a Hershey contractor.

According to the State Department’s website, the J-1 visa program is designed to “provide an extremely valuable opportunity to experience the U.S. and our way of life, thereby developing lasting and meaningful relationships.”  Unfortunately, hundreds of students assigned to the Hershey Company got a different kind of experience.

According to the students, they paid between $3,000 and $6,000 to enter the J-1 visa program, hoping to learn about American culture and experience life in the US.  They ended up working as cheap labor to a contractor at a Hershey packing facility where, after suspicious paycheck deductions, they were making well below minimum wage.  The contractor assumed that, as foreign nationals, the students would never realize that they were the victims of wage theft and wouldn’t know whom to turn to for help.  Instead, the students organized themselves, got in touch with local unions, and brought their plight to the media.

It didn’t have to be this way.  I love exchange students, but if the contractor needed to staff the packing facility why didn’t they employ the thousands of unemployed workers in the area who would have loved to have a job with a living wage and decent benefits?  Is it because the contractor thought they could use cheap, below minimum wage student labor without getting caught?

In this case, there is plenty of blame to go around.  The Council for Educational Travel, who is supposed to be monitoring the student workers in the J-1 program; Hershey, who hired an unethical and possibly criminal contractor to staff and oversee their packing facility; and the contractor all share blame for these exploited foreign students.  Who is most at fault is not the question we should be asking but rather, what does that this say about American life?

To hear more about these brave students and their fight, please click here.