Foreign students who claimed they toiled under abusive conditions at a Pennsylvania plant handling Hershey candies last year have won over $200,000 in back wages in a settlement struck with the U.S. Labor Department.
More than a thousand foreign students, most of them from Asia and Eastern Europe, took part in a controversial cultural exchange program that landed them in a Palmyra, Pa., facility where they packaged Hershey candies for promotional displays. Many of the students eventually went on strike, claiming they worked under harsh conditions for illegally low pay.
According to the Labor Department, three entities that were involved in staffing the students at the facility were fined for their role in minimum-wage, overtime and safety violations: SHS Group, a temporary labor firm; Exel, Inc, the logistics company that oversaw the plant; and the Council for Educational Travel-USA, a nonprofit that helps bring foreign students to the U.S. on J-1 travel visas.
In addition to paying $213,000 in back wages, the settlement includes $143,000 in safety and health violations at the packing facility.
The students' walkout led to a small scandal last year, exposing problems with the State Department's J-1 visa program as well as the dizzying contracting arrangement at modern U.S. warehouses and packing facilities. When HuffPost originally reported on the walkout, each of the companies involved was referring reporters to other companies with which it had contracted.
Hershey, it should be noted, was not named in the Labor Department's settlement, as the candy giant did not directly employ or broker any of the workers, although it ultimately benefited from the students' labor.
Leni Forston, a Labor Department spokeswoman, confirmed to HuffPost that the settlement involved the workers who'd been packing Hershey candies.
"It's the same case," Forston said. "There were no findings against Hershey."
Students said the experience at the plant wasn't at all what they'd been promised. Told they'd experience American culture, the students claimed they spent their days lifting 50-pound boxes under the threat of deportation. Many of them said they'd paid exhorbitant sums of money for the opportunity to do so, having to cover the costs of travel and administrative fees for their visas.
The J-1 visa program is one of several sanctioned programs that bring foreign workers and students to the U.S. for extended periods of time. The J-1 program has been criticized for poor oversight, with labor activists saying students are often exploited and leave the country with little in the way of cultural experience.
"These students were promised a cultural exchange," Saket Soni, the director of advocacy group the National Guestworker Alliance, told HuffPost when the students walked off the job last year. "Instead, they became captive workers, pushed every day beyond their physical limits, trapped by crushing debt they had no chance to pay back, facing constant threats of deportation when they asked for the most elementary improvements in conditions."
According to the Labor Department agreement, Exel, which oversaw the Palmyra plant, agreed to institute programs to make sure labor and safety laws are followed at its 300 U.S. facilities. After the students' walkout made news, Exel asked the temp staffing firm that it not supply J-1 students to work at the facility.