Alleging Captive Labor, Foreign Students Walk Out of Work-Study Program at Hershey Plant
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’ 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.