WASHINGTON -- A group of experts on labor and international law assembled in Hershey, Pa., on Friday to investigate claims from foreign students that they had worked under exploitative conditions at a local packing plant handling Hershey candy products. The allegations have raised concerns about a controversial U.S. visa program and also put a spotlight on the widespread subcontracting now found in the American supply chain.
The students had come to the U.S. on J-1 visas for the summer to experience America and improve their English. Instead, they claim they ended up working stressful full-time jobs for a sub-contractor at the plant in exchange for meager pay. Several of the students said they each paid between $3,000 and $6,000 to come to the U.S., and that after their housing costs were deducted they were taking home between $40 and $140 per week.
With the help of U.S. labor activists, hundreds of the students staged a high-profile walkout at the plant this week that led to the arrests of three Pennsylvania union leaders. Some of the foreign students have continued to work at the plant, while others have taken to the streets of Hershey to protest.
The independent panel includes legal experts from the University of Pennsylvania, City University of New York, Villanova University, Loyola University of New Orleans, and the University of Tennessee. They are currently interviewing the students and hope to present their findings as early as next week, according to the National Guestworker Alliance, an advocacy group representing many of the students.
"It's important to have a public, in-depth investigation to get to the bottom of the situation," said Stephen Boykewich, a spokesman for the group.
The Hershey controversy has brought renewed attention to the J-1 visa program, which is run by the U.S. State Department and designed to facilitate cultural exchange. Critics of the program say it's often used by American corporations as a means to find cheap labor.
An investigation by the Associated Press last year found that the J-1 program had little oversight and that disappointed students often wound up in low-paying jobs under harsh conditions. Some even worked in strip clubs or took home $1 per hour.
Harry Edwards, a State Department spokesman, said the department is looking into the allegations. "We are sending staff to [the Hershey area] to investigate the situation, and will work with our private-sector sponsor and the J-1 visa participants involved to ensure compliance with all program directives."
The students' allegations in Hershey has also kicked off a round of buck-passing among the companies involved, highlighting some of the accountability problems associated with J-1 workers. Most of the companies disavowed any responsibility for the students, yet several of them seem to have benefited from the students' work.
Although the students worked at a plant handling Hershey Company products, a Hershey spokesperson referred questions this week to the company that runs the plant, Exel Inc. A spokesperson from Exel in turn referred HuffPost to the company that supplies the labor, SHS Staffing Solutions. And an SHS spokesperson referred HuffPost to the non-profit that handled the students' visas, the Council for Educational Travel, USA, or CETUSA.
In video interviews, students said that they suffered back and arm pain due to the stressful and repetitive nature of the work packaging chocolates and that their pay worked out to $5 per hour. "It was horrible," one student said. They also claimed that when they complained about the conditions, they were threatened with deportation.
In a statement Thursday, CETUSA said it had been "reaching out" to the students regarding their concerns with the program.
"Obviously, we want every student to experience a meaningful cultural exchange during their visit," CETUSA CEO Rick Anaya said. "If that is not the case, we will attempt to work with the students to see what can be done in the limited time they have left in their visits."
Boykewich said that at its core, the controversy is about outsourcing in the American workforce, and that the finger-pointing among the companies amounted to "a frantic effort to evade responsibility."
"This is not a fluke," he said of the Hershey situation. "This is an absolutely logical continuation of downsizing and outsourcing and subcontracting."
Most of the students are set to return to their native countries within the coming weeks, Boykewich said. The students mostly hail from countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, including China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Poland, and Romania.
Kevin Connolly, a spokesman for labor supplier SHS, said that CETUSA handled the students' housing arrangements. Boykewich said the workers each paid around $400 per month for housing -- a significant cost for many of them -- and that the $3,000 to $6,000 fees they paid to have their J-1 visas processed through CETUSA was a "huge" sacrifice for students coming from developing countries. He also said many of them will not ultimately earn back the money they shelled out to work in the U.S.
On Thursday, students chanted in front of the Hershey Story museum, urging the candy giant to "give good jobs to local workers." They also sang labor songs in English, Turkish, and Russian. "The public response was overwhelmingly positive," Boykewich said. "Streams of cars honking and waving, pulling over to talk to students, passersby stopping to talk with them and folks coming out of surrounding businesses to do the same."
Connolly said that Exel Inc., the company that runs the packing plant, has directed SHS not to staff the plant with students on J-1 visas anymore.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, this story originally said the students were paid $3,000 to $6,000 to come to the U.S., when in fact they paid that money to come to the U.S. This story was also updated to include a response from the State Department.