Bittersweet Lesson: We need foreign students to teach us a basic lesson of fairness? | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Bittersweet Lesson: We need foreign students to teach us a basic lesson of fairness?

"It's sad that these processes have come to dominate our business life."

Zhao Huijiao thought she knew what working in America would be like. 

"They told me we were just packing chocolate," said the 20-year-old student from Dalien, China. "I think, chocolate is sweet."

Bittersweet, more like. 

Zhao was among 400 foreign students who've spent this summer packing Hershey's candies at a distribution facility in Palmyra, Pa. She and fellow students from China, Eastern Europe and Turkey came to the States on a J-1 visa, used for "work-and study-based exchange visitor programs" offering "educational and cultural exchanges."

As Zhao told me during an Aug. 19 demonstration in Market Square, however, the program was more about work than study. Students found themselves hoisting 40-pound boxes of candy at a distribution center all day long. "All my friends would have blue-and-green [bruises] on their arms," she said.

"The first day is horrible: It's ‘faster faster faster,' and production never stops," said Roman Surzhko, a student-worker from the Ukraine. 

And while students earned up to $8.35 an hour, they were docked for the price of rent -- often $400 to share a two-bedroom apartment with three other students -- and an enrollment fee of up to $6,000 to cover travel and other costs. After deductions, Surzhko says, his first week of earnings came to $70.

Had he gotten more exposure to American culture, he might have done what many Americans do nowadays:  Shut Up And Be Glad You Have a Job. Instead, the students made headlines by doing something we've forgotten how to do: demand something better.

As The New York Times reported, last week hundreds of students walked off the job, "waving their fists and shouting defiantly in many languages." It appeared to be "the first time that foreign students have engaged in a strike," the paper added.

If the strike was unusual, the finger-pointing response was not. Hershey owns the facility, but noted that management is handled by another firm, which relies on a third company to procure temporary help. That firm found the workers through the Council for Educational Travel U.S.A., a non-profit that recruits students overseas. 

CETUSA has said that students were given job descriptions in advance, and that the council had been trying to resolve complaints. In a statement, it contended the candy-packing job is "often requested by our exchange students." 

Federal officials are investigating, and the Hershey program is being terminated. 

But even if everyone had the best of intentions, "when you let people in who are less than full citizens, they end up with less than full rights," says John Bowe, author of Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.

 Bowe's book documents labor abuses far beyond anything alleged at Palmyra. But he says some of the patterns are similar. 

"Hershey was being lame in having so many layers of outsourcing," says Bowe. Such practices isolate employers from what's being done in their name. "It's sad that these processes have come to dominate our business life. It's a lesson in trying to keep things small."

Even Hershey workers were surprised to learn about the students. Employees are represented by Chocolate Workers Local 484. But union officer Diane Carroll says the distribution center is operated independently, and efforts to organize it failed. "We don't know exactly what is going on over there."

Carroll says the students are doing the kind of work she once did at Hershey. But she didn't pay thousands of dollars and cross an ocean for the opportunity. "I was almost in tears" when she heard the students' stories. "It makes you wonder where else this happens."

Because in today's economy, corporations can locate factories anywhere on Earth … while a workplace next door may as well be on the other side of the world. 

Our political rhetoric, meanwhile, often seems designed to distance us from each other. Unions are likened to parasites, while hedge-fund managers are lumped in with "job creators" whose taxes must be kept low. On economic issues, Americans have the same vocabulary, but are speaking different languages.

The reverse is true for the Hershey students. Surzhko, for one, told me that changing labor practices would be "better for all workers." Hiring students "is cheap, but American citizens need work."

 "Maybe when they go home," Carroll told me, "they can help make things fairer for everybody."

Actually, we could use their help right here.

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