More than 300 young foreigners, packing candy in a warehouse in Pennsylvania, staged a high-profile walkout and protest against their employers and the State Department, which oversees the program. They alleged that they had been worked to exhaustion and had met few Americans except supervisors who pressed them to pack faster and threatened to have them deported.
“My parents agreed to send me because it would be a way to improve my English,” wrote Aysel Kiyaker, a student from Turkey who paid $3,000 for her airfare and work visa. “They told us the job would be easy and fun and they would have pizza parties for us.”
Instead, Kiyaker found herself lifting heavy boxes on long shifts in the rural factory, owned by the Hershey Co. “After work my whole body was numb,” she wrote in an affidavit for the National Guestworker Alliance. She said one friend was threatened after she complained, and another was fired for not working fast enough. “After that happened, people were more afraid.”
The nonprofit guest-worker group took up the students’ cause and filed a formal complaint against the State Department, as well as Hershey and the Council for Educational Travel USA (CETUSA), charging that they had exploited the students as cheap labor. The strike ignited a media frenzy and raised alarms in Congress, in part because of concerns that American workers were being displaced.
CETUSA, which manages the program for the State Department, denied the allegations. Company officials suggested that the striking students had been misled by union activists and said other students had been placed at Hershey for seven summers without any problems. Hershey officials said they owned the building but had no role in hiring or supervising the students, which were handled through subcontractors.
“If any of them were dissatisfied, we were not hearing it,” said Terry Watson, CETUSA’s president. “We sponsor thousands of students every summer. The great majority of them have a wonderful experience and go home spreading the good word of America.”
But the bad publicity stunned and embarrassed the State Department. Officials there promised to investigate the alleged abuses and review the program, which brings more than 100,000 foreign students to the United States every summer. Department officials said they are planning a major overhaul to prevent such problems from recurring and to reinforce the program’s diplomatic purpose.
“We want to make sure it meets our goals for worthwhile exchanges that promote better relations with other countries,” said Michael Hammer, an acting assistant secretary of state, adding that the summer jobs are supposed to be part of a “positive cultural experience.”