By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Three federal agencies said on Thursday they were investigating complaints that foreign students on a work and travel trip were exploited by a Hershey chocolate packaging plant and never got the cultural immersion they were promised.
The students staged a sit-down strike at the plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, and their complaints were being investigated by the U.S. State Department, the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department and the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
The 400 students are visiting the United States on a J-1 visa, which allows them to work and travel. Foreign student work-sightseeing trips are typically sponsored by nonprofit agencies, in this case a California-based Council for Educational Travel USA.
Students complained about Dickensian work conditions at the plant, operated by a partner of chocolate giant The Hershey Company.
Although the students earned between $7.25 and $8.25 per hour, once rent was taken out of their paychecks and they paid bus fare to and from work, they netted about $100 to $140 per week for 40 hours of work, a spokesman for the National Guestworker Alliance said.
Typical payments the students made to get to the United States ranged from $3,000 to $6,000, he said.
The overworked and underpaid students said some jobs required faster and faster production, including repeatedly lifting heavy boxes.
"Students who weighed as little as 98 pounds were lifting boxes up to 50 pounds every five seconds for four hours," the alliance spokesman said.
Alliance director Saket Soni said, "They've been used as cheap labor instead of getting the cultural exchange program they were promised... I would say Hershey is benefiting from cheap labor."
Kirk Saville, spokesman for Hershey, said on Wednesday the company cares deeply about its employees. "We were disappointed to learn that some of the students were dissatisfied with the cultural immersion element of the program."
He said Hershey has now asked its partners to give one-week paid leave "for students to immerse themselves in U.S. culture."
The students are from China, Jamaica, Nigeria, Romania and Ukraine.
One of the students, Yana Brenzey, 19, of Ukraine said she applied to the program because, "I wanted to see America." Her stay, instead "became work, and sleep... The supervisors told us to hurry up."
Rick Anaya, chief executive of the California-based sponsoring company, said, "We don't want these young people going back to their countries having a negative view of the United States."
In a 26-page rebuttal of the guest workers' allegations, the nonprofit said it finds it "inconceivable that it is being accused of not providing a cultural exchange experience to its program participants."
The rebuttal, which was sent to the State Department, listed Hershey-Harrisburg as a prime location in the United States, close to Philadelphia, Washington and New York City.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston)