Good news surfaced last week when the Department of Labor announced a settlement resulting in compensation for foreign student workers who faced labor abuses at a Hershey candy company packing plant. Three companies, including Hershey contractor Exel Inc. (which oversaw the plant), agreed to pay $213,042 in back wages to more than 1,028 students in the J-1 visa Summer Work Study program. In addition to the back wages, the settlement also requires two of the companies to pay $148,000 in safety and health violation fines.
FIC blogged last summer about the students' brave disclosures, including meager wages and harsh working conditions, amidst the threat of deportation – a far cry from the fun cultural experience they were promised.
From the Associated Press:
One protester, Yana Brenzey, a 19-year-old journalism student from Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, said she had no idea that she would be lifting 40-pound boxes or netting only about $200 a week. Other students who took part in the protest were from China, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Poland, Romania and Turkey.
More than 100 of the foreign students working at the plant staged a protest, which according to the National Guestworker Alliance, "helped expose how some employers use subcontracting, outsourcing and temporary staffing agencies to undercut federal wage, health and safety standards."
It was a brave move on the students' part to go public with their concerns, despite the obvious risk of harassment by plant managers. Retaliation against American citizen workers is hard enough to stand up against; protection for guest whistleblowers from other countries is even less secure. Whistleblower compensation in the food industry is a rare event, so congrats to the students who put what little pay they were getting on the line to make sure their voice was heard.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.