Professors Beth Lyon and Colleen Breslin Examine Hershey Guest Workers’ Complaints on Labor and Human Rights
On August 19, 2011, two days after 200 foreign student guest workers walked off their jobs at a Hershey chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, Villanova Law Professors Colleen Breslin and Beth Lyon, along with three other labor and human rights experts, formed a human rights delegation that traveled to Palmyra to meet with the students. The Delegation came at the invitation of the National Guestworker Alliance and included interviews with the students and a tour of their housing facilities.
The students contracted through agencies in their home countries with the Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA) to participate in an educational and cultural exchange experience. The program that brought them to the United States is often referred to as the J-1 program, named for the visa issued by the U.S. Department of State that allows students to obtain short-term employment that will expose them to the daily life in the United States, and allow them to earn income to travel and see the country. Their experiences did not live up to the “sweet” promises and assurances from their home agencies and CETUSA gave at the point of recruitment into the program.
The Human Rights Delegation issued its report in August, reporting the students’ corroborated allegations that they had paid as much as $6,000 to take part in the four month J-1 cultural exchange program. They expected a month to sightsee and make American friends, with a three month summer job to help finance it all. Many students were placed at the packing plant and found themselves working night shifts on speeding production lines, repeatedly lifting boxes weighing as much as 60 pounds. In addition, they paid unexpected extra costs for housing and transportation from their meager salaries. CETUSA, a non-profit organization billed as “the students’ advocate” in the chain of employment, and even officials of some of the students’ home governments, responded to their expressions of concern with threats of deportation, and the Department of State did not respond at all. The Hershey students finally got the State Department’s attention on Aug. 17 when they walked out of the plant and revealed major holes in the State Department’s oversight of its summer work and travel program.
The report included the Delegation’s findings on potential human rights violations and made detailed recommendations for ensuring a thorough investigation designed to safeguard the interests of the college students and their families in their home countries. The report can be viewed at http://www.workered.org.
Professors Breslin and Lyon met with the full group of student guest workers, and also interviewed students in small groups to hear their stories. As a result of the visit and report, Professor Lyon presented on a World Affairs Council panel in Harrisburg that included a representative of the Washington, D.C. association to which CETUSA belongs, and Professor Breslin was interviewed by Radio WBAI in NYC.
Both Breslin and Lyon have now teamed up with Villanova Law Professor Keith Fogg and VLS Advanced Advocacy Clinic student Tom Southard in a follow-up project, which will analyze the tax exempt status of all of the non-profit organizations currently recruiting students through this guest worker program. Their report is to be issued in the Spring of 2012.
Professor Colleen Breslin joined the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic as a Reuschlein Clinical Teaching Fellow in the fall of 2010. Prior to joining Villanova’s clinical faculty, she was a Trial Attorney with the National Labor Relations Board. Professor Breslin received a B.A. from Boston College and a J.D. from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Professor Breslin’s research interests include labor law, organizing and the law, and issues facing immigrant workers. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Labor and Employment Relations Association, and the Pennsylvania Hispanic Bar Association. She is involved in numerous community labor projects, including the Advisory Board of Restaurant Opportunities Council – Philadelphia (ROC-Philly).
Professor Lyon joined the Villanova Law School in the Fall of 2001, where she is the founding Director of the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic, founding Co-Director of the Community Interpreter Internship Program, and Professor of Law. Professor Lyon received her B.A. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, her M.S. from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center. She serves on the boards of various organizations focused on legal services and legal education, is a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Civil and Equal Rights Committee, and recently served on the American Bar Association Language Access Standards Project Advisory Group. Professor Lyon publishes and presents widely on international law on migration and clinical legal education. She has been quoted in various news outlets and cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.