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Report: Student Human Rights Controversy in Hershey, Pennsylvania

September 08, 2011
Sarah Paoletti
Sarah Paoletti
Practice Associate Professor of Law

A new study by a human rights delegation, including University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Sarah Paoletti, is recommending that the U.S. Department of State conduct a more thorough investigation into the alleged abuses of over 400 J-1 student workers by the Hershey Company and several of its contractors.

The report was created by a delegation of human-rights and labor-law experts that includes, in addition to Professor Paoletti, Fran Ansley of the University of Tennessee College of Law; Colleen P. Breslin of Villanova University School of Law; Stephanie Luce of the City University of New York; Tsedeye Gebreselassie, staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project; Beth Lyon of Villanova University School of Law; and William Quigley of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. The delegation found little oversight of the J-1 program by state and federal agencies, leaving space for abuse at multiple levels.

"We are extremely concerned by students’ accounts of deception, coercion, and threats from the State Department-certified sponsoring agency CETUSA (the Council for Educational Travel, USA), as well as supervisors from SHS Onsite Solutions, Inc., the employment agency that contracted with CETUSA to provide the J-1 student workers, and Exel North American Logistics, Inc., contracted by Hershey to run operations at the Hershey packing plant,” said Professor Paoletti, who directs the Transnational Legal Clinic at Penn Law. “These accounts are consistent with accounts of abuses experienced by other categories of guestworkers, compounded by the layers of contracting and subcontracting used here by the Hershey Company."

The delegation visited the seasonal workers who traveled to the United States on the J-1 Visa Summer Student Travel/Work Program at the Hershey packing plant, conducting a preliminary investigation into the workers’ claims that their living and working conditions violated international human rights standards. The workers, who launched a massive complaint and protest against the packing factory, claim their treatment not only fell short of the program’s promise as a cultural exchange opportunity, but that they were subjected to working under abusive conditions, taking home well below minimum wage after mandatory company deductions.

The report identifies a series of recommendations needed to ensure the protection and promotion of the student workers’ human rights moving forward, including suspension of all CETUSA J-1 contracts pending release of the results of the investigations; individualized assessments of the students’ claims; and ongoing monitoring. In addition, the report concludes that a larger investigation is needed for the J-1 visa program.

"The State Department, which has within its mandate to oversee the J-1 cultural and education exchange program, is not equipped to ensure student workers' conditions meet basic human rights standards under U.S. law, as well as under international law,” Paoletti said. “Those failures have contributed to the apparent violations, as alleged by the students."

To read the report in its entirety, please go to: http://www.guestworkeralliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Human-Rights-Delegation-Report-on-Hersheys-J-1-Workers.pdf.