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Hershey's Sweatshop: Subcontractors Cited for Taking Advantage of Student Guestworkers at Candy Factory

The students came for a summer learning experience with a job at a classic American company. Instead, they got a crash course in the realities of the global economy.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

The students came for a summer learning experience with a job at a classic American company. Instead, they got a crash course in the realities of the global economy.

Following months of campaigning, young foreign students who have waged a bitter labor battle against a U.S. candy giant, the Department of Labor has  cited two subcontractors that helped import the students into the Hershey plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, where they were reportedly subjected to coercive, exploitative conditions. Though Hershey itself wasn't targeted, subcontractors involved in the work program, Exel Incorporated and SHS Group, were charged with several occupational safety violations, including failure to provide adequate safety-training and a repeated failure to record injuries and illnesses.

Though the  citations include various fines, they didn't really address the core of the shadowy labor supply chain that entangled several hundred students from China, Nigeria, and other countries. According to workers' testimonies, they came for an “educational” work experience under the J-1 visa program and  ended up stuck on an assembly line packing candies for obscenely low wages. The recruits eventually revolted and launched a  high-profile campaign with the National Guestworker Alliance and other advocacy groups.

As Mike Elk  reported previously, the State Department has recently promised to revamp regulation and oversight of the J-1 student work program. The subcontractor citations coincide with an  ongoing investigation by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division into the euphamistically named Council for Educational Travel, which handled J-1 visa hiring for Hershey. But advocates continue to press for bolder action to reform  loophole-ridden visa programs that enable employers exploit migrants while dodging labor regulations.

Following the Labor Department citations, Jennifer J. Rosenbaum, legal director of the National Guestworker Alliance,  stated:

This is a case study of the way a major corporation uses a subcontracting giant to kill decent U.S. jobs.... Corporations try to avoid responsibility for labor abuses by hiding behind chains of subcontractors, and by hiring guestworkers who are vulnerable to threats of retaliation. This time, it didn’t work: the student guestworkers took the risk to organize and bring these abuses to light, and the Department of Labor held Exel and SHS accountable.

Still, the scandalized companies that helped orchestrate Hershey’s candy sweatshop represent a tiny facet of the structure of temporary migrant labor in the U.S. and around the world. By definition, guestworkers are roped into a system that muddles lines of accountability with corporate impunity and the wilful political neglect, so that often neither employers nor governments take effective responsibility for protecting these second-class denizens of the global economy.

The “gray market” for temporary foreign labor covers many sectors and brims with evidence of abuses that are often even worse than what the Hershey students experienced. The  H2A visa program for agricultural labor effectively subsidizes systematic exploitation on farms nationwide, exposing both documented and undocumented workers to wage theft and brutal forced labor. The H2B program, which funnels migrants into other industries like food-processing and construction, has been linked to debt bondage and slave-like conditions, and only recently prompted signiicant reform measures from the Labor Department.

Whether seeking jobs as office interns or farm hands, many visa-based guestworkers wade into murky legal territory. Employment agencies based abroad may effectively avoid accountability under U.S. law, making it easy for their U.S. partner companies to skirt regulations--for instance, by allowing outside agencies to discriminate in hiring. Once they’re here, workers are often isolated from legal recourse or social supports they would need to challenge abusive employers.

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