(CN) – Four hundred foreign students complained to the State Department that the Hershey chocolate company abused a foreign-exchange program to put them to work packing chocolate and stashed them in overpriced company housing that leaves them only $40 to $140 for a week’s work.
The National Guestworker Alliance claims Hershey abused the J-1 student guestworker program, violated labor laws, intimidated, coerced and threatened them with deportation.
In an Aug. 17 letter to the State Department’s Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, 12 named students said they protested the abuses on behalf of more than 400 similarly situated “Hershey guestworkers.”
The students say they were recruited in their homelands around the world, including in China, Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, Mongolia, Romania, Ghana, and Thailand, and that they paid $3,000 to $6,000 apiece to participate in what they were told would be a cultural exchange program, “as well as to work for three months.”
Instead, the Hershey student guestworkers found themselves packing chocolates for the Hershey’s Chocolate Company at the Eastern Distribution Center … in Palmyra, Pa., supervised by Exel North American Logistics Inc., SHS Onsite Solutions, and Cultural Exchange Travel USA (CETUSA),” the letter states. “Students are paid from $7.85/hr to $8.35/hr. After automatic weekly deductions for above above-market rent and other expenses, they net between $40 and $140 per week for 40 hours of work. They are forced to live in company housing, for which they are charged $395/month each, at least twice the market rates paid by Americans in the same housing complexes. The Hershey student guestworkers’ economic reality leaves them little to no chance even to make back the $3,000-6,000 they paid to come. They have been offered no cultural exchange of any kind. Many actions by these entities violate federal statutes regulating labor, employment, and foreign affairs.
“When the student guestworkers have complained about the violations of U.S. laws regulating labor, employment, and foreign affairs, they were threatened with deportation and other long-term immigration consequences to coerce them to remain quiet about the violations. Student guestworkers from all three shifts were summoned to ‘captive audience’ meetings in the plant and threatened with deportation. Back home, the recruiters in their countries sent threatening emails to the student-guestworkers, called their parents, and even flew into the U.S. from China to undercut the organizing. Their employers and the employers’ agents took these actions to interfere and chill lawful complaints.”
The students say the companies violates OSHA regulations, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, failed to provide cultural activities, threatened their health, safety and welfare, and that the entire experience “brings notoriety and disrepute to the Exchange Visitor program.”
They ask the State Department to supervise participants in the J-1 program more closely, and suspend, investigate and revoke CETUSA’s permission to participate in it.
The letter is signed by Jennifer Rosenbaum, legal director of the National Guestworker Alliance, based in New Orleans.