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Hershey walkout: Foreign students nix firms' offer

Hershey walkout takes new twist as firms offer cultural tour of US to 400 foreign student workers. But Hershey walkout leaders reject offer, saying the real issue is too much work for too little pay.

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An unidentified student protests the working conditions at a Hershey Co. warehouse operated by Exel earlier this week in Palmyra, Pa. The Hershey walkout involves a substantial number of the 400 foreign students brought in to work summer jobs for firms supplying Hershey. Student leaders complain of low pay and hard working conditions.

John C. Whitehead/The Patriot-News/AP

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Companies involved in employing foreign students who walked off their jobs in protest at a facility that serves the Hershey chocolate manufacturer on Friday developed a plan to send the students on a trip to see some of the United States' cultural and historical landmarks, but leaders of the protesting students rejected the idea flatly.

Rick Anaya, chief executive of the Council for Educational Travel USA, the San Clemente, Calif.-based nonprofit company that helped bring the students to the U.S., said the plan emerged after a two-hour conference call with representatives of the other three companies involved in their employment at a chocolate distribution center just outside Hershey.

"We're actually doing this on our dime," including paid time off for the student-workers, he said. "We're paying for this trip. We're just fleshing out the details."

Students walked off the job at an Exel Inc.-run facility on Wednesday, saying the work was so strenuous and low-paying that they were unable to see very much of the country they came to visit and that they were angry at having spent thousands of dollars to participate in the program.

The students hold J-1 visas, which supply resorts and other businesses with cheap seasonal labor as part of a program aimed at fostering cultural understanding.

Exel said Thursday it doesn't intend to continue to employ J-1 visa holders after the current group's tenure ends in mid-September.

Godwin Efobi, a 26-year-old medical student from Ukraine who's originally from Nigeria, said the initial reaction by student leaders to reports of the proposal was to reject it in the strongest terms.

"They're not interested," Efobi said late Friday. "If we say yes to this, it means that we were just making noise just so we could get a holiday. Yes, we want that, but there are bigger issues than just a holiday."

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Anaya said the plan was developed during a call with representatives of Westerville, Ohio-based Exel; The Hershey Co., the nation's second-largest candy maker; and SHS Staffing Solutions, a Lemoyne-based temp agency that employs the roughly 400 J-1 visa holders who work at the Exel facility.

Anaya said the trip was not designed to buy off the students but rather to directly address one of their main concerns. He said their other issues would remain on the table and his organization was committed to dealing with them.

Exel spokeswoman Lynn Anderson described the cultural trip as part of an effort to address the workers' complaints.

"We're certainly supportive of it," Anderson said. "I think they will play that back to the students who have expressed concerns."

A spokesman for Hershey, whose sweet treats include Almond Joy, Kit Kat, Milk Duds and Reese's peanut butter cups, said it was working with the other companies on the issue but offered no details about the cultural trip. A spokesman for SHS Staffing did not immediately return a phone message.

It's unclear how many of the 400 students have participated in the Hershey walkout. An organizer has said about 200 continue to support it, but Anderson said a majority of students have showed up for every shift since it began. She said the protest has affected the facility but production has largely continued as expected.

More than 100 students demonstrated in downtown Hershey on Thursday, chanting and holding signs that described themselves as slaves and captive workers and targeted The Hershey Co. in particular. Exel is aHershey vendor, and SHS supplies workers to Exel.

One protester, Yana Brenzey, a 19-year-old journalism student from Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, said she said she had no idea that she would be lifting 40-pound boxes or netting only about $200 a week when she began working in early May at the warehouse run by Exel.

Other students who took part in this week's protest are from China, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Poland, Romania and Turkey. The students say they want their jobs converted into family-sustaining work for the local community and want the companies involved in hiring them to negotiate over returning some of their costs to participate in what was billed as a cultural exchange program.

Anaya said he hoped the trip would help get the students away from what he described as a negative atmosphere around the Hershey plant.

"I want the kids to have a good impression of what America is like before they go home," he said. "We don't want these kids to leave with a bad taste in their mouth."

Also Friday, some of the student-workers participated in demonstrations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to bring attention to their complaints, while others began meeting with a team of labor law experts from colleges and universities who were probing the dispute.

The U.S. Department of State said Friday its investigators would be arriving in Hershey on Monday.

More than 100,000 college students come to the U.S. annually on J-1 visas for a mixture of work and exposure to the country's culture, but an investigation by The Associated Press last year described how some ended up stuck in extremely low-paying jobs and living in crowded, unsanitary conditions.

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