Student Guestworkers Get a Bitter Taste of America

By Alicia Criado, Policy Associate, Economic Policy Project, NCLR

J-1 students Jorge, Luis Fernando, Fernando, and Rodgrigo  Photo:  National Guestworkers Alliance
J-1 students Jorge, Luis Fernando, Fernando, and Rodgrigo
Photo: National Guestworkers Alliance

What would you do if you paid $3,000–$4,000 to participate in a four-month cultural exchange program, only to find out that you’ve signed up to work for an employer that denies you wages, regular work hours, and forces you to live in inhumane conditions?

I know what I would do—speak out!

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On March 6, that’s exactly what 16 international students did after working in the United States under the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program.  They have been exploited as guestworkers at various McDonald’s locations in central Pennsylvania and suffered abuse by their employer, McDonald’s franchisee Andy Cheung.

NCLR staff recently met with several of these students, who shared the shocking details of what they endured during their “cultural exchange”:

  • Irregular hours and shifts often lasting 25 hours—with no overtime pay
  • At other times, as few as four hours of work per week at $7.25 an hour
  • Living with up to eight students in a basement owned by their employer for $300 each per month
  • Retaliation and threats to cut their hours and deport them after they formally complained to their sponsor, GeoVisions

Eventually they contacted the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), filed official complaints with the State Department and Department of Labor, and went on strike.  With the assistance of the NGA, the students engaged other U.S. workers and labor and civil rights leaders to demand that McDonald’s take responsibility for the labor abuse.  Although McDonald’s has announced that Andy Cheung is no longer a franchisee in their system, the students have put forth reasonable requests from McDonald’s:

  1. That McDonald’s pay students back all the money they are owed, including the money they spent to come work for the company, unpaid overtime, and housing overcharges
  2. That the McDonald’s franchisee offer dignified wages and full-time work to its U.S. McDonald’s workers, who are struggling with low wages and too few hours
  3. That McDonald’s reveal all the guestworkers at its stores and sign an agreement guaranteeing basic labor standards, including nonretaliation against workers who organize to stop abuse

The truth is that guestworkers play an essential role in the U.S. workforce today.  However, all too often the abuses experienced by those like the J-1 students are indicative of problems that many U.S. workers currently confront.  Enacting federal legislation such as the “Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation Act (POWER Act)” would strengthen whistleblower protections for guestworkers who speak out against workplace violations and employer abuse.

McDonald’s student guestworkers set up a petition outlining their demands and delivered them to McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson at his home in Illinois on March 26.  For more information, please visit the National Guestworker Alliance.