Remember that Simpsons episode in which Bart is conned into becoming a slave on a French grape farm through an “exchange student” program? The New York Times reports:
Hundreds of foreign students, waving their fists and shouting defiantly in many languages, walked off their jobs on Wednesday at a plant here that packs Hershey’s chocolates, saying a summer program that was supposed to be a cultural exchange had instead turned them into underpaid labor.
The students, from countries including China, Nigeria, Romania and Ukraine, came to the United States through a long-established State Department summer visa program that allows them to work for two months and then travel. They said they were expecting to practice their English, make some money and learn what life is like in the United States.
In a way, they did. About 400 foreign students were put to work lifting heavy boxes and packing Reese’s candies, Kit-Kats and Almond Joys on a fast-moving production line, many of them on a night shift. After paycheck deductions for fees associated with the program and for their rent, students said at a rally in front of the huge packing plant that many of them were not earning nearly enough to recover what they had spent in their home countries to obtain their visas.
Their experience of American society has been very different from what they expected. “There is no cultural exchange, none, none,” said Zhao Huijiao, a 20-year-old undergraduate in international relations from Dalien, China. “It is just work, work faster, work.”
ohn Fleming, a State Department spokesman, said officials were aware of the students’ protest and had sent staff members to Hershey, Pa., where the candy company is based, to investigate. “It is our job to ensure that all J-1 visa holders are accorded their rights under all provisions of the Summer Work Travel program,” Mr. Fleming said.
The arrangements that brought the foreign students to work at the Eastern Distribution Center III, a vast warehouse in a trim industrial park near Hershey, the American chocolate capital, involved layers of contractors.
The students said they mainly placed blame on the organization that manages the J-1 visa program for the State Department, the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A., which is based in California.
Rick Anaya, chief executive of the council, said he had brought about 6,000 J-1 visa students to the United States this summer. Mr. Anaya said he had tried to respond to the Palmyra workers’ complaints. “We are not getting any cooperation,” he said. “We are trying to work with these kids. All this negativity is hurting an excellent program. We would go out of our way to help them, but it seems like someone is stirring them up out there.”