August 24, 2011; Source: Patriot-NewsIf students from Turkey, China and Eastern Europe wanted to experience the educational experience of long hours and low pay in a warehouse, they probably could have found opportunities closer to home. 

A group of 150 international students in the U.S. on a work-travel program “designed to foster cultural understanding between cultures” walked out of their jobs at a Hershey Company candy warehouse and conducted protests in downtown Hershey for three days earlier this week. The students were objecting to the working conditions at Hershey’s Central Distribution Center III, where they were paid wages of $7.25 to $8.10 an hour to box chocolates and perform other warehouse tasks.

This wasn’t quite the educational experience the students anticipated. A 19-year-old woman from Turkey told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “What we have here is work, sleep, eat. They did not offer us any cultural things.” A 21-year-old Chinese student told the New York Times that the work was “very heavy, sometimes we can’t do. . . . But they ask, faster, faster . . . [and] if you can’t, they say, ‘Go home.’”

The foreign students were brought to the U.S. through the J-1 visa program by the Council for Educational Travel USA (CETUSA), a California-based nonprofit. CETUSA links up with local job placement agencies to place students in various work settings. The organization says that the students at the Hershey warehouse knew what they were getting into, having signed agreements “to work 32 to 40 hours per week in a ‘fast-paced environment with lots of bending, lifting and repetitive work’ . . . while standing for eight hours in a climate-controlled environment.” 

The CEO of CETUSA, Rick Anaya, said that the “cultural immersion” component of CETUSA’s service was up to the students to provide themselves: “We can provide the environment . . . but as far as making contact with Americans, that’s up to the kids. We provide the setting, but it’s up to them to make the effort.” When the protesting students contacted CETUSA, they were essentially told, “If you are not happy, go home.”

On the eve of a visit from federal Department of Labor, Hershey encouraged CETUSA and the for-profit warehouse operator to give the students one-week salaried vacations to allow them to travel and pick up more of a sense of America than what the concrete slab floors of American warehouses could offer. CETUSA has now agreed to offer “bus trips to the students to allow them to visit national monuments and other historical locations in the region.”

And what about the for-profit Hershey Company (which is actually owned by a nonprofit charitable trust)? The company likely enjoyed having access to a year-round low-cost work force recruited by CETUSA. These low-wage foreign students probably displaced U.S. workers, as Hershey has laid off a substantial number of employees since the recession.

Maybe there is a legitimate explanation here, something better than Anaya’s “Caveat emptor—you should have read the fine print” response. Either way, it shouldn’t have taken street protests by a bunch of foreign students to get corrective action from Hershey and CETUSA.—Rick Cohen