HERSHEY, Pa. – Foreign students working at a candy warehouse protested conditions and pay Thursday, chanting on Chocolate Avenue under streetlights shaped like Hershey’s Kisses, arguing that they were employed under the guise of a cultural exchange but toil away in what amounts to a sweets sweatshop. The State Department said it was investigating.
More than 100 students gathered in touristy downtown Hershey, home to the nation’s second-largest candy maker, complaining of hard physical labor, steep pay deductions for rent that often left them with little spending money, and no cultural enrichment. They said their concerns were met with threats of deportation.
“We have no money, we have no time and we have no power,” said Yana Brenzey, a 19-year-old journalism student from Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine.
She said she had no idea that she would be lifting 40-pound boxes or netting only about $200 a week when she began working in early May at the warehouse run by Westerville, Ohio-based Exel Inc.
A spokesman for the Hershey Co. would say only that the corporation expects its vendors to treat employees “fairly and equitably.” An Exel spokeswoman said the company was working with SHS Staffing Solutions of Lemoyne, Pa., which helped place the students, to resolve the situation.
The students earn about $8 an hour, the same as their American counterparts, and were fully informed about the nature of the work, SHS spokesman Sean Connolly said. The company does not intend to fire the students for their protest, he said.
“We continue to discuss the concerns they have,” Connolly said. “We hope there’s a resolution.”
The leader of the Council for Educational Travel USA, a nonprofit based in San Clemente, Calif., that also helped place the students, asserted that their motives weren’t entirely pure.
“Somebody has been circulating a letter that they will get several thousand dollars back if they protest and be a part of this movement,” said CEO Rick Anaya. “We have not gotten any cooperation from the kids. Somebody is promising them a lot of money in order to participate in this protest.”
He acknowledged that the jobs are “fast-paced” and involve heavy lifting, but he said the students knew what they would be doing. He said he became aware of complaints two weeks ago and sent managers to Pennsylvania to work out differences.
The students were offered the opportunity to leave the job if they were unhappy, he said.
They are among more than 100,000 college students who come to the U.S. each year on J-1 visas, which supply resorts and other businesses with cheap seasonal labor as part of a program aimed at fostering cultural understanding.