McDonald’s has just been caught hijacking a program that’s supposed to allow young people to come to the U.S. for cultural exchange programs and professional training. Instead, the fast food giant used it as a source of cheap, exploitable labor.
Students from Latin America and Asia found themselves working at McDonald’s for minimum wage. But their take-home pay was far lower after exorbitant deductions for employer-owned housing. If they quit or were dismissed, they would lose their visas and be deported, a threat their boss constantly dangled over them.
They were sometimes required to work for 25 hours at a time with no overtime. They were housed eight to a room in substandard housing and expected to be ready to turn up for work at any time with only 30 minutes notice. And to add insult to injury, the students paid $3,000 each for the privilege.
But these students aren’t just sitting down and taking the abuse. With the support of the National Guestworker Alliance, many of them walked off the job in protest. And one of the students, Jorge Rios, has launched a petition with our friends at Coworker.org. He writes:
My name is Jorge Rios. I’m a student guestworker from Argentina who came to the U.S. on the State Department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel Program, together with other students from Latin America and Asia.
We paid $3,000-4,000 each to come to the United States on this program, expecting a cultural exchange and good work that would let us earn back this money over three months and travel a bit at the end.
Instead, we became exploited workers at McDonald’s restaurants in Pennsylvania. 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.
When we talked to the U.S. workers alongside us, we learned that they were being exploited too. They told us they also faced too few hours, threats from managers, and unpaid overtime.
This is not the America we believed in. We believe America is a beautiful country, where everyone can have respect and fair treatment at work. We decided to stand up for ourselves, for other J-1 student guestworkers, and for U.S. workers. We respectfully ask that.
These students are taking their campaign on the road. They’re going to New York to meet with the fast food workers who went on strike last year before heading to McDonald’s corporate headquarters outside Chicago to demand a meeting with CEO Don Thompson. All along the way, they’ll be delivering petitions to McDonald’s managers, and the more of us that sign, the bigger the impact will be.
So we need to act now let McDonald’s know that it’s customers are paying attention to this case and that we’ll hold it accountable if it doesn’t follow through.