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The Chocolate Sweatshop

What happened recently at the Hershey candy factory, in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, has to be considered one of the weirdest and most outrageous labor stories of the new year.

First the outrageous part.  According to a story in the New York Times (February 21), Exel, the logistics company hired by Hershey to oversee its Palmyra operation, was found guilty by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) of intentionally failing to report 42 serious injuries in the plant over a period of four years.  Those 42 accidents constituted 43-percent of all such injuries that occurred during that period.

The majority of those injuries were related to the lifting and rehandling of large crates (some weighing 60 pounds) of Reese’s cups, Kit-Kat bars, and Hershey’s Kisses.  The Labor Department issued fines in the amount of $280,000, and David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of OSHA, was quoted as saying, “Exel understood exactly what the law was on reporting.  They were aware of these other injuries, and they just did not record them.”  So that $283,000 penalty (inordinately high for OSHA violations) wasn’t levied for the usual reasons—improper record-keeping or unsafe working conditions—but for the much more serious crime of willful deceit.

Of course, Hershey wiped its hands clean of the whole affair, claiming they had no knowledge of how Exel ran the operation.  This “veil of ignorance” nonsense is reminiscent of American sportswear and sports equipment companies claiming not to know that their products—the ones being sold for top dollar on American shelves—are
being manufactured in Central American sweatshops where near slave-labor conditions exist, and where union activists are regularly threatened, beaten and, on occasion, murdered.

Unfortunately, this “know nothing” posture is prevalent across-the-board.  By their own admission, the U.S. Government in Iraq had no knowledge of what Halliburton and Blackwater were doing, and Halliburton and Blackwater had no knowledge of what their subcontractors were doing, which meant, conveniently, that no one could be held accountable. Contractors and subcontractors now litter the commercial landscape.  Say what you will about the “enemy,” but the only guys in Iraq who seemed to know who answered to whom were the insurgents.

As to the safety aspect of the Hershey fiasco, let’s be clear: there’s no way this could have happened in a union shop. Not only would a union facility have 24-hour a day shop stewards, union safety coordinators, ergonomic analysis committees, (not to mention a hotline directly to OSHA), but the company would never dream of concealing it.

Management would know that no accident or injury could possibly go unreported—unless the individual workers involved purposely concealed them (which, in most cases, would get them in trouble with both the company and the union).  In short, the difference in safety conditions and responses between a union shop and non-union shop is the difference between night and day.  There’s no comparison.

And now for the weird part.  According to that NYT story, many of these employees were student workers here in the U.S. on an “international cultural exchange program,” recruited by SHS Staffing Solutions, the subcontractor hired by Exel (the contractor hired by Hershey), to man up the operation.  Apparently, Exel was using hundreds of these foreign workers to do the heavy lifting.

Which raises several questions.  For one thing, what sort of “international cultural exchange program” involves the participants doing manual labor in a factory?  What is so “culturally beneficial” about heaving cases of Kit-Kat candy bars on the graveyard shift at a Hershey plant?  And if it’s an “exchange” program, does this mean it’s a two-way street?  Are an equal number of Americans traveling to foreign countries to do this kind of work?  Are American students volunteering to spend summer vacations working in Ukrainian salt mines?  If so, it’s the first we’ve heard of it.

And not to sound mean-spirited or xenophobic, but with unemployment hovering around 9-percent, why aren’t American workers being offered these jobs?  If there’s a genuine need for this lifting and hoisting, there are American workers willing to do it.  Alas, if you pay a decent wage, as strenuous as the work may be, you’ll find a long line of them waiting outside the hiring hall.

DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.   He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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