A group of foreign exchange students who were allegedly lured to the U.S. to participate in a cultural exchange program and instead forced to work under substandard conditions at a Harrisburg McDonald's will be in Philadelphia on Saturday.
The students, who have since joined economic justice advocacy organization National Guestworker Alliance, will be demonstrating at the Broad and Arch streets franchise to demand a meeting with McDonald's CEO Don Thompson.
According to the National Guestworker Alliance, 18 Latin American and Asian students paid $3,000 to $4,000 each to take part in the U.S. Department of State's J-1 Visa program, which is intended for participants in work or study-related exchange programs. They expected to be provided with decent jobs to help them earn back the money over a three-month period and to receive some free time toward the program's end to travel and learn about U.S. culture.
"Instead, we became exploited workers at McDonald's restaurants in Pennsylvania," student worker Jorge Rios wrote in a petition on Coworker.org that has already gained 5,470 signatures. "We had terrible working and housing conditions. We faced threats, stolen wages, grease burns up and down our arms. We were only used to enrich our employer."
The students were employed at one of three Harrisburg McDonald's franchises run by Andy Cheung, who they say also owned the cramped basement apartments in which they were forced to live – up to eight students per room. "We slept on bunkbeds made for children that shook and squeaked," Rios said. "We had no privacy whatsoever."
The students say they were paid $7.25 an hour. But they were allegedly given as little as four hours of work each week, no overtime pay for shifts lasting as long as 25 hours and mandated to deduct $300 from their monthly pay for room and board, bringing their net salary far below minimum wage.
"The employer knew we were desperate for more hours, and he kept us on call to come in with 30 minutes’ notice all day and night," Rios said. "I didn’t even have time to visit the public library."
He said Cheung and his subordinates threatened to retaliate if students complained.
"If we ever answered that we couldn’t work a shift — if someone was sick or exhausted when they got a call at 4 in the morning — the managers retaliated by giving us even less hours," Rios said.
"We could not quit because we knew that if we did, our visas would be cancelled. One manager told us, 'You better remember, all we have to do is make one phone call and we can deport you back to your country at any time.'”
Despite the threats, the students on March 6 went on strike outside the Harrisburg franchise and have since demonstrated at McDonald's in Pittsburgh and New York City.
Students say they've discovered they're not the only ones facing similar working conditions at McDonald's locations.
"When we talked to the U.S. workers alongside us, we learned that they were being exploited too," Rios said. "They told us they also faced too few hours, threats from managers and unpaid overtime."
National Guestworker Alliance executive director Saket Soni said the U.S. Department of Labor has registered 1,588 labor violations by McDonald's since 2002.
"That tells us the exploitation of these guestworkers is just the tip of the iceberg," Soni said. "As U.S. corporations push for more guestworkers through immigration reform, McDonald's needs to lead the way by pledging to protect workers against retaliation for exercising their labor rights.
"Employer retaliation almost blocked these students from exposing labor abuse. McDonald's needs to disavow that retaliation and meet with the students directly."
The students will continue to advocate for a meeting with Thompson and have plans to demonstrate at the fast food giant's corporate headquarters near Chicago on March 26, then take their protest to Thompson's home if he doesn't respond.
McDonald's makes a move
McDonald’s announced on Thursday it severed ties with franchisee Cheung, minutes after a raucous protest at a New York City location.
“We take the well-being of the employees working in McDonald’s restaurants seriously," spokeswoman Danya Proud said in an emailed statement.
"We began investigating the situation in Pennsylvania immediately upon learning of the issues involved. The franchisee has agreed to leave the McDonald’s system. We are also working on connecting with the guest workers on an individual basis to most effectively address this situation.
"Finally, we are providing information to franchisees who may participate in the guest worker program to ensure they understand both the letter and spirit of all the requirements of the State Department’s J-1 Visa program, as well as the expectations for full compliance by McDonald's."
The students responded in a statement. “McDonald’s’ action is an important admission of labor abuse at its stores,” they said.
“But a change of management at three stores will not protect the guestworkers and U.S. workers at McDonald’s’ 14,000 other stores in the U.S."
List of demands
Aside from meeting with Thompson, students are also seeking repayment of the money they're owed, including funds spent to come work for McDonald's, compensation for unpaid overtime and for their housing bills.
They also want McDonald's to offer full-time work.
To protect future workers, the students also want McDonald’s to disclose all the stores where it employs guestworkers, and sign an agreement with the National Guestworker Alliance to guarantee basic labor standards for them, including protections from retaliation when workers organize against abuse.