Trouble in Candyland

Hershey, "the sweetest place on earth," is getting its share of sour press.

The town, the company - even the chocolate - long maintained the positive image left by its founder, Milton Hershey, who built a factory, hotel, park and more and left his fortune to his school for underpriveleged kids.

Now, I'm thinking, Milton wouldn't be happy.

For the second day in a row, the New York Times today reports on trouble in candyland involving hundreds of foreign exchange students and protests over their treatment at a Hershey packing plant.

About 400 students from Eastern Europe, Turkey and China on a U.S. State Department cultural exchange program say the only culture their getting is around-the-clock shift work lifting 40- to 50-pound boxes of Hershey Kisses and Kit Kat bars on to a fast-paced production line. Some say they were told if they don't like it they can go back to where they came from.

Welcome to America. From a place named after one of America's greatest philanthropists.

The Times reports students are paid $7.25 to $8.35 an hour with their local housing costs deducted from their paychecks. So far, about the only exchanging they've done is with each other, at work, and with local labor leaders they contacted looking for some help.

Thing is, Hershey laid off 700 full-time union workers in the last four years and plans to lay off another 500 next year. No wonder. Why pay scale if you can get college kids to work for much less.

Makes "The Great American chocolate bar" seem a little runny, no?

Company profits are up. For the quarter just ended, Hershey reports a sales jump of 7.5% to $1.3 billion.

And here's the thing. While there are layers of vendors, employment companies and bureacracy involved in the exchange students story, all the coverage of it includes images of the town of Hershey, of Hershey products or Hershey company billboards.

If Hershey's smart (and I imagine you don't get to be a worldwide candy king without being smart), it would step in, appease the kids, hire back some locals to work the line and turn this story into one about an American corporation that still cares. If it does, that would be sweet.