A labor group representing foreign guest workers in the U.S. has accused McDonald's franchises near Harrisburg, Penn., of paying student guest workers below the minimum wage and housing them in substandard conditions.

The group, the National Guestworker Alliance, said Wednesday that students from Latin America and Asia had paid as much as $3,000 apiece to come to the U.S. on J-1 visas, a cultural and educational exchange program administered by the State Department. According to the group, an undisclosed number of the students walked off their jobs on Wednesday in protest of the working and housing conditions.

"McDonald’s hijacked the guestworker program to access cheap, exploitable labor,” Saket Soni, the director of the National Guestworker Alliance, said in a statement. “At a time when workers are organizing to win immigration reform and raise the minimum wage, McDonald's is innovating new ways to turn immigrant workers into a sub-minimum wage workforce."

Neither McDonald's nor the State Department immediately responded to requests for comment. HuffPost reached a manager at one of the McDonald's in question, in Camp Hill, Penn., with protest chants audible in the background. The man declined to give his name and said he wouldn't answer questions. "I cannot tell you anything about that. I'm just a manager in the store," he said. A manager at another location referred HuffPost to McDonald's corporate communications team.

The National Guestworker Alliance alleges that some students received as few as four hours of work a week, at the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. After "exorbitant" deductions for housing, those wages were pushed below the legal minimum, the group says, while the students lived "up to 8 students to a room" at a cost of $300 per person. The group also charges that students were threatened with surprise visits from their employer and recruiter in order to "suppress complaints." The students came from Argentina, Peru, Chile and Malaysia, among other countries, according to the group.

Young foreigners on J-1 visas are supposed to soak up American culture while working a typical U.S. student's job for a few months, often in the service or food industry. But the long-running program has been hobbled by allegations of worker exploitation, with students paying hefty travel fees for the opportunity and then going into debt due to low wages and high housing deductions.

This isn't the first time the guestworker alliance has levied such charges. In 2011, student guest workers backed by the group walked off the job at a Pennsylvania packing plant for Hershey chocolates, sparking a scandal surrounding one of the nation's premiere candy makers. Thousands of such students were employed as low-paid temp workers at the bottom of a chain of contractors. They said they spent their days lifting 50-pound boxes under the threat of deportation, with their travel and administrative fees outstripping their meager earnings from the job.

The Labor Department later struck an agreement with the contractors in the Hershey case awarding the students more than $200,000 in back pay. The non-profit that brokered the J-1 visas for the students, the Council for Educational Travel, USA, was banned by the State Department from bringing any more students to America on work and culture exchange.

As Congress undertakes comprehensive immigration reform, labor groups have called for tighter restrictions and better oversight of guest worker visa programs like the J-1.

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  • McDonald's Grew During The Recession

    McDonald's had <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2009/08/who_won_the_recession.html" target="_hplink">higher sales growth in 2008</a> than in 2006 or 2007, opening nearly 600 stores that year, according to Slate. The chain was able to take advantage of Americans' recession tastes: Cheap, convenient food.

  • They Handle Food That Isn't Really Food

    One <a href="http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/w2sv3/fast_food_workers_of_reddit_what_is_the_one_menu/" target="_hplink">Reddit user claiming to be an ex-McDonald's worker</a> said he once left a bag of chicken nuggets out on the counter for too long and "they melted. Into a pool of liquid." That didn't stop him from loving the nuggets, "still delicious," he wrote.

  • Fast Food Companies See Huge Profits On The Backs Of Low-Wage Workers

    More than <a href="http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Press Releases/2012/PR_MinWageCorpProfits.pdf?nocdn=1" target="_hplink">60 percent of low-wage workers</a> are employed by big corporations, according to a July analysis by the National Employment Law Project. And more than 90 percent of those companies were profitable last year.

  • The Average Pay For A Fast Food Worker In New York City Is $9 Per Hour

    Fast food workers in New York City make an <a href="http://blogs.villagevoice.com/forkintheroad/2012/11/fast_food_forward_strike_nyc.php" target="_hplink">average of $9 per hour</a>, according to the Village Voice. That comes to about $18,500 per year for full-time workers.

  • Fast Food Workers Are Unlikely To Get Paid Sick Days

    For 40 percent of private sector workers, <a href="http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-11-28/news/bs-ed-sick-leave-20121128_1_sick-days-care-workers-service-workers" target="_hplink">taking a sick day</a> and still getting paid isn't an option, according to the Baltimore Sun. Fast food workers are especially likely to be part of that 40 percent.

  • The Boss Can Threaten To Take Workers' Health Care Away

    Many fast food workers saw their health benefits put at risk this year, if they even had them at all. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/09/papa-johns-obamacare-john-schnatter_n_2104202.html" target="_hplink">Papa John's CEO John Schnatter</a> said he would likely reduce some of his workers hours so that he wouldn't have to cover them in response to Obamacare. Jimmy John's founder, Jimmy John Liautaud told Fox News in October that <a href="http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/your-world-cavuto/2012/10/16/jimmy-johns-founder-business-owners-unsure-future" target="_hplink">he would "have to" cut workers' hours</a> so that he wasn't forced to cover them under Obamacare.

  • The Average Hourly Pay At Many Fast Food Eateries Is Less Than $8 An Hour

    The average hourly pay at McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Taco Bell is less than $8 an hour, according to <a href="http://www.cnbc.com/id/50015355" target="_hplink">salary data cited by CNBC</a>.

  • The Median Age Of A Fast Food Worker Is 28

    As more workers fight for limited jobs, many older employees are gravitating towards the fast food industry. The median age of a fast <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/11/mcjobs-should-pay-too-its-time-for-fast-food-workers-to-get-living-wages/265714/" target="_hplink">food worker is 28</a>, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by the Atlantic. For women, who make up two-thirds of the industry's employees, that age is 32.

  • Labor Leaders Rarely Try To Unionize Fast Food Workers

    Fast food worker's went on strike in late November in New York City, showcasing a rare effort to organize the industry's workers. Labor leaders often don't make an effort to organize these workers because the high turnover makes the challenge daunting.

  • Fast Food Workers Are The Lowest Paid Workers In NYC

    For all their work, fast food workers get very little dough. The lowest paid job category in New York City is "Combined Food Service and Preparation Workers, Including Fast Food," according to Bureau of Labor Department Statistics <a href="http://www.salon.com/2012/11/29/in_rare_strike_nyc_fast_food_workers_walk_out/" target="_hplink">cited by Salon</a>.