‘Tis the season to stage a protest! Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the latest and most high profile protest, and historians are already calling it “monumental” and “transformational.” But at the end of August, another protest was also happening, in Palmyra, PA. On August 17th, hundreds of foreign exchange students, high school and college age, walked out of their jobs at the Hershey factory. They were part of a non-profit exchange program, Council for Educational Travel, USA (Cetusa), run by the federal government for the last fifty years.
The program is meant to provide an understanding of American culture to the foreign students, who are mostly from 2nd and 3rd world countries, including China, Nigeria, Romania and the Ukraine. Their plan was to work for two months during summer, then use the money they earned to pay for the upfront cost of the program, sometimes as much as $6000. With the money left over, they could travel for the last month.
The students learned, however, that working at an American factory is grueling and painful, involving speedy production lines, repetitive motion work, and lifting heavy, sixty-pound boxes of chocolate. Many students were forced to work the night shift in a cold room where temperatures were below sixty degrees. Godwin Efobi, 26, a third-year medical student from Nigeria who is studying at a university in Ukraine, said he has a permanent back ache now from moving boxes. “Holding a pen is now a big task for me; my muscles ache,” Efobi says.
Protests, as I explained to my daughter, are an American tradition – it’s what you do when you’re not happy and you’re out of options. Though the students were given a flyer from the US State Department about fair treatment, complaints by students to the State Department were met with threats that the students’ visas would be revoked. In some cases, students were fired for being unable to perform the work, which put them in direct violation of their visas immediately. To add insult to injury, the sub-contractor running the program, Exel (looking very much like a cousin of Halliburton), set the students up in crowded, overpriced housing. That meant the students were taking home sometimes as little as $85 for a week of work.
“I spent some of the worst moments of my life during that exchange,” said Ignacio Torres Sibaja, a 21 year old graphic arts student from Costa Rica who paid $400 per month to live in cramped quarters with four other students. Torres thought he was going to Colorado to work in a resort. Instead, he arrived in Pennsylvania and waited two days for someone to meet him at the airport until he finally discovered a Cetusa office in Harrisburg, and found a bus to take him there. All the money he had went to paying his rent upfront – he didn’t eat for a week.
State Department officials and program administrators expressed surprise and shock at the students’ claims. Cetusa’s CEO Rick Anaya said recently, “This is a beautiful, great program.” Like many right-wing politicians, he blames the labor unions for stirring what would have otherwise been a contented pot. “It’s clear and obvious to me that this whole thing was started and fueled by the unions,” he said.
In any case, the program is clearly in trouble, and appears to be contributing to anti-American sentiment world-wide. Even if it is an accurate picture of life in America, maybe we should improve on it before we share.