Thursday, December 20, 2012

Exchange Students Win $200K Settlement for Exploitation at Hershey Plant

Last year there was strike at Hershey Chocolate by 300 foreign students living here on J-1 work-study visas. According to Democracy Now, it was the first time that foreign students had engaged in a strike against their employer.

Their actions are now starting to pay off. Over 1,000 students from Eastern Europe and Asia recently won more than $200,000 in back wages for their work at Hershey in a settlement with the U.S. Labor Department, according to the Huffington Post. The feds have also imposed fines on three groups involved in staffing for minimum wage, overtime and safety violations: SHS Group, a temporary workers firm; Exel, Inc, the company that oversaw the plant; and the Council for Educational Travel-USA, a nonprofit that imports foreign students on J-1 travel visas.

Hershey, however, has so far gotten off without consequences, even though they benefited financially from the exploitation of the students.

The students had to pay between $3,000 and $6,000 to participate in the “cultural exchange program,” a modern day form of job sharking run by the U.S. government. In reality, many were forced to do heavy lifting from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am and toil under sweat shop conditions, when they were supposed to be sleeping and studying for their day classes. They were also forced to live in company housing with rents far above market value, similar to the company towns of the early 20th century, where workers were paid in scrip.

Interestingly, they did learn a lot about American culture, just not the white-washed American Dream fantasy that the program had hoped for. They not only learned that American capitalism will take advantage of every opportunity to abuse people for private gain, but they also learned that Americans themselves are hungry, homeless, unemployed and desperate for a stable income. (The student workers were given jobs at minimum and sub-minimum wage, while local residents were suffering high rates of unemployment and poverty).

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