J-1 Visa Students Protest Hershey Working Conditions

International exchange students working at a Hershey’s chocolate plant in Hershey, Pennsylvania, recently staged a protest against labor conditions at the factory.

The students gathered amidst tourist crowds in downtown Hershey and, according to The New York Times, chanted, “Who are we? The J-1 students. We are proud.” They were referring to the J-1 visa, which is a work visa allowing international students to hold employment for a specified period of time in the United States and then travel the country.

A Ukrainian student, one of many protesters from Eastern European countries, told The Associated Press that shifts are so constant, there is only time to work and sleep. Peng Lu, a Chinese student, told The New York Times that managers threatened to send workers unable to lift heavy boxes back home. Other students told the paper they rarely interacted with Americans, as promised by the exchange program, and were paid between $7 and $8 an hour for intense manual labor.

American labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, have allied with the students. Nonprofit organizations that facilitated the students’ visas and employment at Hershey’s said they are addressing the protesters’ concerns, and one organization told the news source it plans to fund trips to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., for the students.

State Department figures show 353,602 J-1 visas were issued in 2010.