Godwin Efobi at a protest this summer at the Hershey’s store in Times Square.
The college student from Moldova was in the United States on a cultural exchange program run for half a century by the federal government, a program designed to build international understanding by providing foreign students with a dream summer of fun in America. So he summoned his best English for the e-mail he sent to the State Department in June.
“Pleas hellp,” wrote the student, Tudor Ureche. He told them about “the miserable situation in which I’ve found myself cought” since starting a job under the program in a plant packing Hershey’s chocolates near the company’s namesake town in Pennsylvania.
Students like Mr. Ureche, who had paid as much as $6,000 to take part in the program, expected a chance to see the best of this country, to make American friends and sightsee, with a summer job to help finance it all.
Instead, many students who were placed at the packing plant found themselves working grueling night shifts on speeding production lines, repeatedly lifting boxes weighing as much as 60 pounds and financially drained by low pay and unexpected extra costs for housing and transportation. Their complaints to the contractor running the program on behalf of the State Department were met with threats that they could be sent home.
Events this summer at the Hershey packing plant in Palmyra, Pa., revealed major holes in the State Department’s oversight of its summer work and travel program, the largest and most ambitious of its cultural exchanges. The program, which placed 130,000 foreign students in all sorts of jobs across the country this year, has a large impact in shaping the country’s image for young generations overseas.
The Hershey students finally got the department’s attention on Aug. 17 when 200 of them, waving placards and chanting union slogans, walked out of the plant, the first labor protest in the 50-year history of the department’s exchange programs.
The protests raised questions about whether the State Department is equipped to manage what has become a vast temporary work program, especially in times when suitable jobs for foreign students — even short-term jobs — are harder to come by as high unemployment persists in the United States.
The protests also exposed serious lapses by the Council for Educational Travel, USA, a nonprofit group based in California and one of more than 70 sponsors contracted by the State Department to organize the students’ trips to the United States and find jobs and housing for them.
The group, known as Cetusa, placed nearly 400 foreigners from 18 countries, many of them graduate students in medicine, engineering and economics, in physically arduous jobs at the Palmyra factory that were overwhelming for some.
The students, who were earning about $8 an hour, said they were isolated within the plant, rarely finding moments to practice English or socialize with Americans. With little explanation or accounting, the sponsor took steep deductions from their paychecks for housing, transportation and insurance that left many of them too little money to afford the tourist wanderings they had eagerly anticipated.
Program documents and interviews with 15 students show that Cetusa failed to heed many distress signals from students over many months, and responded to some with threats of expulsion from the program.
A Cry for Help
Mr. Ureche, 22, an engineering student, said he had begun to appeal to Cetusa for a different job as soon as he went to work lifting boxes loaded with Hershey’s candies.
“I’ve been having serious back pains since the first day of work,” Mr. Ureche reported in his e-mail to the State Department on June 6, sent two weeks after he started on the job. “If I continue in this rythm of work, it may cause me serious health damages.”
He felt “mistreated and ignored by my sponsor,” he wrote. And the organization told him, he said, that if he complained to Washington, “they will immediately cancel my visa.” A few days later Mr. Ureche quit his job, making his way to New York and finding work.
When the walkout came two months later, State Department officials reacted swiftly, opening an investigation centering on Cetusa that has not yet concluded.
Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting.