Protest at Hershey Gaining Support

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on September 9, 2011

The protest against Hershey Co, the corporate chocolate icon, by foreign students working under a State Department cultural exchange program is not diminishing, even as many of the students prepare to return home at the end of their four-month J-1 visas.

To the contrary, protesting students are gaining new support in their effort to expose what they call sweatshop conditions at Hershey's Eastern Distribution Center. The massive plant, located just east of the Pennsylvania town that bears the company's name, ships candies made at the nearby Hershey factory.

This week AFL-CIO state federation president Rick Bloomingdale said that if the company does not respond to the complaints by September 23, the labor organization will help conduct a mass protest at Hershey.

Hershey Co. has expressed surprise at the students' protest, noting they are actually employed by an outside staffing firm. The staffing firm, SHS OnSite Solutions, was contracted by a third company, Exel, which was hired by Hershey to run the plant.

The students came to the U.S. at their own expense and under the sponsorship of the Council for Educational Travel, USA.

CETUSA is one of dozens of organizations designated by the State Department to identify foreign students and arrange for them to work in the U.S for a three-month period and then to have the opportunity to travel for another month. The students pay hundreds of dollars in fees to the sponsors and to the sponsors' partners, who recruit in countries around the world.

The employers are not charged for the service; indeed, they are recruited by CETUSA and other sponsoring organizations.

CETUSA, a California-based nonprofit, has responded to the students' allegations by noting that the students signed contracts that described the nature of the work they would be doing. Its website promises students the opportunity to "gain valuable work and life experience, expand your resume, improve your English, and have opportunity to travel in the U.S., make great memories and form lasting relationships."

In addition to demanding improved working conditions and a refund of their fees, the protesting students say their jobs should be made available to Americans. They have been organized by a group that calls itself the National Guestworker Alliance.

In a statement this week, Saket Soni, the alliance's executive director, said the students' protest "reveals how companies like Hershey's are getting creative in their search for the cheapest possible labor, using the J-1 cultural exchange program, which was never intended to be a guestworker program, to fill what used to be living-wage jobs for local workers."

Also this week, an ad hoc group of university professors formed to examine the students' protest criticized the State Department for failing to provide sufficient oversight of the J-1 visa program.