Hundreds of students currently studying in the United States on student visas walked off their jobs at Hershey’s chocolate packing plant on Wednesday. The students charged that a summer program advertised to be a cultural exchange had instead turned them into underpaid labor.
The walkout at the Palmyra, Pennsylvania plant is the first time that foreign students have engaged in a strike to protest their employment.
"There is no cultural exchange, none, none," Zhao Huijiao, a 20-year-old undergraduate in international relations from Dalian, China told the New York Times. "It is just work, work faster, work."
Several Chinese students reported paying more $6,000 to come to the United States on a J-1 work-travel visa. Students claim that the program was meant to be a fun way to travel and gain cultural experiences while also earning money to help subsidize their trips.
However, after weekly deductions for company housing and other expenses, the students net between $40 and $140 per week for 40 hours of work, according to Jobs with Justice, a labor justice group that’s working on the students’ behalf.
"We are supposed to be here for cultural exchange and education, but we are just cheap laborers," Harika Duygu Ozer, 19, a second-year medical student from a university in Istanbul told the Times.
Ozner says she was excited when she was offered the job because she thought it’d be fun and that it would it help pay her medical school tuition.
"We have all seen Charlie’s chocolate factory," she told The Times. "We thought, ‘This is good.’"
Instead Ozner reports she’s working the night shift that starts at 11pm. "You stand for the entire eight hours," she said. "It is the worst thing for your fingers and hands and your back; you are standing at an angle."
The tipping point however was when they learned that their neighbors were paying significantly less money for the same apartments.
At the walkout Wednesday students reported many of them were not earning nearly enough to recover the money spent in their home countries to obtain their visas. Their demands include The Hershey Company reimburse them for their their travel expenses and better working conditions for all workers at the plant.
A spokesman for the Hershey Company says this isn’t their problem because they hired a contractor to fill jobs at their plant. "The Hershey Company expects all of its vendors to treat their employees fairly and equitably," the spokesman told a local paper.