The college student from Moldova was in the United States on a cultural exchange program run for half a century by the federal government, a program designed to build international understanding by providing foreign students with a dream summer of fun in America. So he summoned his best English for the e-mail he sent to the State Department in June.
“Pleas hellp,” wrote the student, Tudor Ureche. He told them about “the miserable situation in which I’ve found myself cought” since starting a job under the program in a plant packing Hershey’s chocolates near the company’s namesake town in Pennsylvania.
Students from other countries pay as much as $6,000 to come to the US as part of this program. They're expecting to be able to make friends, work on their English speaking skills, sightsee, and have a summer job. A combination of education, work, and fun, in other words. The fun seems to have been left out of the equation.
Instead, many students who were placed at the packing plant found themselves working grueling night shifts on speeding production lines, repeatedly lifting boxes weighing as much as 60 pounds and financially drained by low pay and unexpected extra costs for housing and transportation. Their complaints to the contractor running the program on behalf of the State Department were met with threats that they could be sent home.
The students, who were earning about $8 an hour, said they were isolated within the plant, rarely finding moments to practice English or socialize with Americans. With little explanation or accounting, the sponsor took steep deductions from their paychecks for housing, transportation and insurance that left many of them too little money to afford the tourist wanderings they had eagerly anticipated.
Essentially, these students paid to come here and be exploited for the summer. After they're gouged for housing and transportation costs they earn next to nothing, and in this case, they were working in unsafe conditions. It seems likely that this is NOT the kind of "international understanding" that the State Dept. was hoping to foster.
Hershey's packing subcontractor is fined for safety violations. From the February 21, 2012 NY Times:
After a six-month investigation prompted by the protests of student workers on an international exchange program, the Labor Department on Tuesday issued fines of $283,000 for health and safety violations against a company that operates a plant in Pennsylvania packing Hershey’s chocolates, saying it had covered up serious injuries to workers.
The 24-page citation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the company, Exel, intentionally failed to report 42 serious injuries over four years to workers at the plant in Palmyra, Pa., or 43 percent of all such injuries in that period at the plant. The injuries, which were discovered by safety inspectors during their investigation, required medical treatment, and many were related to lifting and moving big boxes of Hershey’s chocolates along a packing line.
found that Exel (the subcontractor) had not recorded dozens of injuries. They also determined that that failure was not the result of ignorance, that they were deliberately not recording injuries. OSHA also determined that in 6 of the 9 violations, Exel willfully failed to protect workers; hence the high fines. Naturally, Exel is going to appeal the fines.
Labor officials said they had found an e-mail in which Exel managers explicitly decided not to provide audio protection for workers in the noisy plant, even though they were aware of the problem.
Jennifer J. Rosenbaum, legal director of the Guestworker Alliance, said the packing was too strenuous for an American worker to perform for a long time. “It was just another way they were turning long-term factory jobs into a job that even a 20-year-old student could not survive for more than a few months.”
The only reason we know anything about this, is because some 200 of the students walked off the job in Palmyra, some carrying signs. It was the first labor strike at the anti-union plant. Fining Excel is a good first step, but this entire program program is in need of an overhaul.
For more on the way these foreign students are exploited, check out this 2010 Associated Press investigation.
cross-posted at MainSt/workingamerica.org