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.