Foreign students visit Pittsburgh, tell of bitter experience at Hershey chocolate (UPDATED) | Slag Heap
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Friday, August 19, 2011

Foreign students visit Pittsburgh, tell of bitter experience at Hershey chocolate (UPDATED)

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 3:20 PM

Zhao Huijiao, a student from Dalian, China, thought she knew what her job in America would be like. 

"They told me were just packing chocolate. I think, chocolate is sweet."

Bittersweet, perhaps. 

Zhao was among some 400 students who have spent this summer packing Hershey's chocolate at a distribution facility in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. She and her foreign-born coworkers -- who hailed from countries as far-flung as Ukraine and Turkey -- came to the States on a J-1 visa. The J-1 is a student visa that allows foreigners to "participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs" intended to "foster global understanding through educational and cultural exchanges." 

For Zhao and her coworkers, though, the opportunities proved somewhat limited. In the Hershey distribution center, Zhao, a slightly built 20-year-old, found herself toting 40-pound boxes onto a conveyer built, putting in an eight-hour shift. "All my friends would have blue-and-green [burises] on their arms," she says.

"The first day is horrible: It's 'faster faster faster,' and production never stops" says Roman Surzhko, a Ukrainian student who, like Zhao, was on hand for a demonstration in Downtown's Market Square this afternoon.

The demonstration, which drew support from One Pittsburgh and a some labor activists, attracted only scattered attention from the luncthime crowd. Students and supporters conducted a brief skit in which they got an English lesson in words like "justice" and "courage," and then defied orders to work from an actor wearing a Hershey Kiss costume.

That bit of street theater may be one of the few cultural activities they've had a chance to engage in. Coming to America, the students say, required them to pay as much as $6,000 to the J-1 program sponsor, a California-based non-profit called Council for Educational Travel-USA. Once here, their wages were docked for expenses including the price of their housing -- which they say frequently had four students bedding down in a two-bedroom apartment, paying $400 each per month.

After "a week of hard work," Surzhko says, he'd earned just $70, working eight-hour night shifts. After a summer working in the plant, he says, "no one has even $1,000" in earnings. He found himself too poor, and too tired, to engage in much travel and cultural exchange -- and anyway, the students were living "in the middle of nowhere."

And what about the educational opportunities he came to find? Surzhko, an aspiring computer engineer, smiles sardonically: "I've maybe learned a little Spanish." 

"The last three months have been one big sarcasm,"  he adds.

According to the National Guestworker Alliance, which represents foreign workers in the U.S. and has filed a complaint with the State Department about conditions in Palmyra, those experiences were typical. The organization charges that while students were paid between $7.85 and $8.35 per hour, once rent and other costs were deducted, they typically had less than $150 in a 40-hour week. 

"When ... guestworkers have complained," NGA charges, "they were threatened with deportation and other long-term immigration consequences to coerce them to remain quiet." 

So Zhao, Surzhko, and other workers made national headlines by staging a walkout at the plant. State Department officials have pledged to investigate. 

The facility they worked at, Eastern Distribution Center-III,  is a linchpin of Hershey's distribution network. The plant has won a coveted -- I assume -- Golden Pallet award from Food Logistics magazine, which cited its high productivity and efficiency. But Hershey doesn't operate the plant; day-to-day operations are handled by a contractor, Exel North American Logistics. Exel apparently contracted with another firm, SHS Onsite Solutions, to hire the workers. SHS, in turn, contracted with CETUSA. 

CETUSA has issued a statement asserting that the agency was communicating with students prior to the sit-down. "We are continuing to reach out to students to explore ways to meet their concerns, including seeking new cultural experiences," CEO Rick Anaya said in the statement.

In a follow-up release,  CETUSA asserts that students have bus passes that allow them to "travel throughout the Harrisburg metro area," from which they can visit New York City and other locations by train or bus. "It is likely that some students do not yet realize the true extent at which they are being exposed to American culture."

The release also says that students are given job descriptions in advance, and that the distribution center work "continues to be a job often requested by our exchange students." As for the rents, while CETUS acknolwedges that rents are higher than average, the agency attirbutes this to the fact that landlords "request a higher rent for short-term leases" -- and that the rent includes utilities.

For its part, Hershey has directed reporters to Exel, noting that Exel handles management of the facilty. 

Not everyone finds that a satisfactory response. Neil Bisno, president of the SEIU Healthcare PA union, says he and other labor leaders tried to visit the Palmyra plant when they heard what happened. When they arrived, he says, "We were met by Hershey security. This is a Hershey operation."

"This is exactly what's wrong with this country," Bisno adds. "Corporations are taking advantage of every loophole they can."

UPDATE: Other union officials are more forgiving of Hershey, most of whose operations are unionized by Chocolate Workers Local 464. Diane Carroll, the local's financial manager, tells me that she was "stunned" by the news. 

"We've only know about this for two or three weeks," she says. "And I'm still asking myself, 'Has this really been going on in my own backyard?'"

Although the distribution center is "a stone's throw away" from other Hershey operations, Carroll says, it is not reprresented by the union: Carroll says that when Hershey built the facilities, "They said, 'This isn't Hershey; it's Exel'" -- much as the company is saying now. "We haven't been able to organize it, and so we don't know exactly what is going on over there." 

Carroll says her own union, while "supportive" of the students, is not "spearheading" the charge. Part of the reason, she candidly acknowledges, is that the union doesn't want to jeopardize its relationship with the company. "For the most part, they work with us. We think the students are being treated unfairly, but we're not trying to bash Hershey. I don't even know whether Hershey knew or not."

Carroll, a 26-year company veteran, says she started working at the plant when she was about the same age as the students -- and she did much the same sort of work."When I first started, I thought, 'Oh my God, I hate this work I hate this work I hate this work.' It's hard on your body, and you learn to adjust -- you learn how to use your legs and other parts of your body. What they were telling me about doesn't sound like jobs that are that horrible, but these are college students who probably aren't used to that sort of work."

I have a call in to Hershey's public-relations department, and will post a response as soon as I get one. In any case, Hershey boasts of having a strong Corporate Social Responsibility  policy -- which includes having a "Supplier Code of Conduct" for its subcontractors:

Suppliers should provide wages at least equal to the applicable legal minimum wage and any associated statutory benefits. If there is no legal minimum wage, suppliers must ensure that wages are at least comparable to those at similar companies in the local area or to prevailing industry norms.

The code asserts that "The Hershey Company reserves the right to monitor, review and verify compliance with the Code."

It's all part of what Hershey says is it's commitment to "provide high-quality Hershey products while conducting our business in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable manner."

In fact, Hershey's largest shareholder is The Milton Hershey school, which the company's founder created to help orphans. The home provides free lodging, education, healthcare, and support to at-risk children.

It all seems just a bit ironic.

Surzhko, for his part, says that the distribution plant's participation in the J-1 program needs to be stopped -- not just for the sake of international students, but because "it's better for all workers." Hiring foreign students "is cheap," he says, "but American citizens need work." 

And while the foriegn students say they want justice -- as well as their four-digit-entrance fees back -- they say the experience hasn't soured them on the American people..

"United States is good; Americans are really kind to us," says Zhao. "But the jobs there [at the plant] are another America."

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