Foreign students protest slave labor at Hershey's

Protestors rally in Pennsylvania.
If you ask Willy Wonka what the formula for a good product is, he’ll tell you it’s 93 percent perspiration, 6 percent electricity, 4 percent evaporation and 2 percent butterscotch ripple.

Those at the Hershey’s chocolate factory in Pennsylvania have a similar setup themselves, but somewhere in the mix they manage to include the exploitation of foreign exchange students into the equation.

Hundreds of students that have come to America from around the world as part of a State Department exchange program are protesting against the Palmyra, PA plant that manufactures treats for the candy company, saying that they’ve been subjected to unjust conditions and wages.

The students are all part of a program that brings foreigners stateside for the summer to learn about American life. They are given special J-1 visas for their participation and are told that they will be able to take in the cultural experience of the United States while working on their English language skills, all while making ends meet.

The international students working at the Hershey plant are saying they’re barely breaking even on the excursion to the US after everything is taken into account, however, despite their salaries.

Students had to fork over upwards of $6,000 to the California-based Council for Educational Travel USA, or CETUSA, for participation in the program.

Though workers are making $8.35 an hour, housing and program fees are deducted directly from their paychecks. While they came to America seeking a land of opportunity, many are finding themselves in the hole now that their duration with the program has neared expiration. Once all fees are taken into account, students say they are left with less money than they had at the beginning, even after weeks of grueling labor.

When they aren’t working the assembly line during all-night shifts, they are crammed two to a room in tiny apartments. And as far as learning English goes, many say that isn’t happening either.

Yana Brenzey, 19, of Ukraine, tells the Lebanon Daily News out of Pennsylvania that she has had hardly begun to experience American culture. "Working hard, eight hours, we have no opportunity to speak at work. If I speak, my supervisor comes to me and says, 'Don't speak anymore, or I'll send you home,'" she says.

"I come here to improve my English because it's very important to my profession. I want to be a journalist," Brenzey adds.

The paper reports that the other workers on the Ukrainian girl’s third-shift are from Puerto Rico and don’t speak English at all. The Philadelphia Inquirer quotes another worker as saying that English isn’t even among the top-five languages spoke during his shift.

The National Guestworker Alliance out of New Orleans was approached by the workers earlier this summer and is now helping to organize the protests that have been occurring outside the facility since Wednesday. That afternoon saw around 150 demonstrators rallying outside. Protests reportedly led to production being halted during Wednesday’s workday but by Thursday, however, a spokesperson for the factory said that most of the students scheduled for the first shift were at work as expected and that production would not be hindered.

Jacob Horwitz, an organizer for the National Guestworker Alliance, tells the Lebanon Daily News that the students were “made captive” by their employers. He adds that there have also been instances where workers were threatened with deportation when asked to be reassigned. Now, he says, workers are protesting and demanding that they are paid back for the work they weren’t properly compensated for.

Another representative or the National Guestworker Alliance told reporters that students had filed a complaint with the US State Department and were expecting federal assistance in the matter. According to NGA’s Stephen Boykewich, the Department of State is deploying an investigative unit to look into the allegations.

On Friday, demonstrations are scheduled to occur not just outside the facility, but in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as well.

John Bilan, age 22, came from Romania to work at the plant. He tells the Lebanon Daily News that he approached CETUSA to discuss his grievances but was shrugged off.

"They say you have the contract. You signed the contract. You need to respect it," Bilan says.

As Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s Sam Beauregarde character would tell you, however:

“Don't talk to me about contracts . . . They're strictly for suckers.”

“We have all seen Charlie’s Chocolate Factory,” Harika Duygu Ozer tells The New York Times. “We thought, ‘This is good.’” Ozer, age 19, came from Istanbul and figured the experience would not only be fun but would help her pay her medical school tuition back home. Instead, she says, she stands for eight hours at a time.

“It is the worst thing for your fingers and hands and your back; you are standing at an angle.”

At least no one’s been turned into a blueberry. Yet.

CETUSA released a statement on Thursday in which the organization states, "We are continuing to reach out to students to explore ways to meet their concerns, including seeking new cultural experiences for the students." Horwitz from the National Guestworker Alliance, however, says the CETUSA previously told workers that they would be fired for attempting to strike.

While the students have been churning out chocolate for the Hershey Company, they are all formally employees of SHS Online Solutions, which was actually subcontracted to staff the warehouse for an Ohio-based company named Exel. On top of the ladder is The Hershey Co. itself, who outsources to Exel to manage the facility.

As of Thursday, the only official statement offered up by the chocolate giants read only one sentence long:

"The Hershey Company expects all of its vendors to treat their employees fairly and equitably."