02/28/2012 09:05 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

Hershey's Not as Sweet as We Thought

What happened recently at the Hershey candy factory, in Palmyra, Pa., has to be one of the weirdest and most outrageous labor stories of the new year.

First the outrageous part. According to a story in the New York Times Exel, the logistics company hired by Hershey to oversee its Palmyra operation, was found guilty by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) of intentionally failing to report 42 serious injuries in the plant over a period of four years. Those 42 accidents constituted 43 percent of all such injuries that occurred during that period.

The majority of those injuries were related to the lifting and rehandling of large containers (some weighing 60 pounds) of Reese's cups, Kit-Kat bars, and Hershey's Kisses. The Labor Department issued fines in the amount of $283,000, and David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of OSHA, was quoted as saying, "Exel understood exactly what the law was on reporting. They were aware of these other injuries, and they just did not record them." So that $283,000 penalty (inordinately high for OSHA violations) wasn't levied for the usual reasons -- improper record-keeping or unsafe working conditions -- but for the much more serious crime of willful deceit.

Of course, Hershey wiped its hands clean of the whole affair, claiming they had no knowledge of how Exel ran the operation. This "veil of ignorance" nonsense is reminiscent of American sportswear and sports equipment companies who claim not to know that their products -- the ones being sold for top dollar on American shelves -- are being manufactured in Central American sweatshops where near slave-labor conditions exist, and where union activists are regularly threatened, beaten and, on occasion, murdered.

Unfortunately, this "ignorance plea" has become the default position of both business and politics. Take Iraq for instance, where, by its own admission, the U.S. Government had no clear idea of who answered to whom. The U.S. didn't always know what Halliburton and Blackwater were doing, and Halliburton and Blackwater didn't always know what their subcontractors were doing, which meant, conveniently, that no one could be held accountable. Say what you will about the "enemy," but the only guys in Iraq who seemed to know who answered to whom were the insurgents.

As to the safety aspect of the Hershey fiasco, let's be clear about something: There's no way this could have happened in a union shop. No way, no how. Not only would a union facility have department shop stewards, union safety coordinators, and ergonomic analysis committees, (not to mention a hotline directly to OSHA), the company would never dream of concealing it. Blatantly concealing the injury/accident would never occur to them.

In a union shop, management knows that no industrial accident or injury is going to go unreported -- unless the individual(s) involved purposely and unwisely attempt to conceal it (which, in most cases, will incur the wrath of both company and union). In short, the difference in safety conditions and expectations between a union shop and non-union shop is the difference between cotton and cotton candy. There's no comparison.

And now the weird part. According to that NYT story, many of these employees were student workers here in the U.S. on an "international cultural exchange program," recruited by SHS Staffing Solutions, the subcontractor hired by Exel, the contractor hired by Hershey to man up the operation (contractors and subcontractors now litter the commercial landscape). Apparently, Exel was using hundreds of these foreign workers (i.e., cultural exchange students) to do the heavy lifting.

Which raises several questions. For one, what sort of "international cultural exchange program" involves the participants doing manual labor in a factory? What is so "culturally" beneficial about lifting cases of Kit-Kats on the graveyard shift at a Hershey plant? And if it's an "exchange" program, does this mean it's a two-way street? Are an equal number of Americans traveling to foreign countries to do this kind of work? Are American students volunteering to spend summer vacations working in Ukrainian salt mines? If so, it's the first we've heard of it.

And not to sound mean-spirited or xenophobic, but with unemployment hovering around nine percent, why aren't American workers being offered these jobs? If there's a genuine need for this lifting and hoisting, there are American workers willing to do it. Alas, no matter how strenuous the work, if you pay anything approaching a decent wage you'll find a long line of applicants waiting outside the hiring hall.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at