On Thursday afternoon, foreign student workers flooded the commercial district of Hershey, Pennsylvania—home of the Hershey Story museum and Hersheypark. The foreign students are in the United States legally through the federal J-1 visa, a summer work program that enables students from foreign universities to come to the United States to work. The idea behind the program is to allow students from around the world to experience life in the United States and to learn more about its culture.
The students who worked in a Hershey Co. packaging and distribution warehouse in Palmyra, however, claim that the wages—around $8.35 an hour, most of which ended up paying off their housing costs—were not enough to repay the $3,000 the students shelled out to participate in the program. Many feel that they were exploited.
The J-1 visa was first administered by the U.S. Information Agency to foster better relations between the United States and other countries. Since its purpose was to offer cultural information to students, the program did not fall under the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Many of the students weren’t informed that they were going to work in a warehouse setting in Pennsylvania, and only found out after they had already arrived in the country. One student said that he had to pay for his trip from Florida—where he was told he had a job waiting for him only to be informed otherwise—to Pennsylvania.
A spokesperson for the Hershey Co. says that the plant is not managed by them, but by a division of German company Deutsche Post DHLA called Exel Logistics. Exel then turned to SHS Onsite Solutions, in Lemoyne, for staffing arrangements. An SHS Onsite spokesperson claimed that they connected with the Council for Educational Travel USA, in California, which recruited at least 370 of the students, and acts as their host. The company is listed as a J-1 sponsor by the U.S. State Department.
The two-day picket rally was organized by the New York-based Guestworker Alliance and even posted videos online containing interviews with the student workers. The students say they just want their money back and for the company to give the jobs to locals who are unemployed. Some of the locals, in turn, have treated them fairly, hoping to give the guests a positive view of American culture. Some commenters in online forums believe that too many American companies are implementing such questionable practices, rather than employing the citizens who live within proximity of these warehouses.
The U.S. State Department stated that it plans to send two senior officials to evaluate the situation.