Last week , McDonald’s, the international fast-food juggernaut, was surprised and, one hopes, publicly embarrassed when a group of student “guest workers” in central Pennsylvania called an impromptu strike to protest working conditions. According to these guest workers, McDonald’s failed to comply with the terms of their agreement, and used intimidation and threats or retaliation to keep them at bay.
These “guests” (from Latin America and Asia) came to the U.S. under the J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program, part of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (AKA the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961). A J-1 is a “non-immigrant visa,” given to visitors who participate in programs designed to promote cultural exchange. Inaugurated in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the program was both a valid attempt to introduce foreigners to the American Way of Life as well as a standard propaganda tool.
Originally, the program’s charter had it focusing primarily on medical or business training, along with visiting scholars who were in the U.S. temporarily to teach and do research. And because it was specifically a cultural exchange program, the J-1 visa fell under the auspices of the now defunct USIA (United States Information Agency) rather than the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). How it evolved from medical and business training to flipping hamburgers is easily explained. Business interests lobbied hard for its expansion.
These visiting workers have turned out to be a bonanza. Each year hundreds of thousands of them are brought to the United States under programs like J-1, and, according to the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), the agency that keeps track of them (and who encouraged and supported the McDonald’s protest), these so-called “cultural exchanges” have, over the years, been badly compromised. Given the overwhelming temptation to engage in mischief, employee abuse is now rampant.
What’s happened is that guest workers are now viewed by American businesses as a “captive workforce”—a gullible and needy collection of workers unschooled in American customs and expectations, and without recourse to labor laws or union representation. Not surprisingly, these visitors are being systematically screwed over. According to the NGA, the McDonald’s “employees” had paid approximately $3,000 each for the opportunity to work in the United States. Presumably, that money was spent on transportation costs and fees to GeoVision, the for-profit organization that sponsored them.
Among the “abuses” alleged by McDonald’s guest workers: (1) They’d been promised full-time jobs, but most were given only a few hours a week. (2) They were nonetheless forced to be on call twenty-four hours a day, and were intimidated and threatened if they complained. (3) The company failed to pay them overtime they were entitled to. (5) According to NGA, their employer is also their landlord, and even though there are as many as half a dozen co-workers sharing a room, their rent (which is automatically taken out of their paycheck) renders them making less than minimum wage. Any complaints, and they’re threatened with being sent back home.
None of this should come as a surprise. When there’s an opportunity to lower operating costs by exploiting labor, management will usually take advantage of it. Call it the Law of the Jungle, call it succumbing to market forces, call it “gaining a competitive edge.” But whatever we choose to call it, it’s the workers who get skinned.
Southern California’s restaurant and car-washing industries are sparkling examples of this phenomenon. These businesses are notorious for exploiting frightened, undocumented Mexican workers by paying them less than minimum wage, and breaking with impunity every labor and safety statute in the book. Why? Because they CAN. After all, who’s going to report them?
Alleging unpaid wages and repeated retaliation, McDonald’s workers in central Pennsylvania launched a surprise strike at 11 this morning. The strikers are student guest workers from Latin America and Asia, brought to the United States under the controversial J-1 cultural exchange visa program. Their employer is one of the thousands of McDonald’s franchisees with whom the company contracts to run its ubiquitous stores.
“We are afraid,” striker Jorge Victor Rios told The Nation prior to the work stoppage. “But we are trying to overcome our fear.”
The McDonald’s corporation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The J-1 visa program is officially intended to promote educational and cultural exchange. But advocates allege that J-1, like the other guest worker programs that collectively bring hundreds of thousands of workers in and out of the United States each year, is rife with abuse. The National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), the organization spearheading today’s strike, charges that such programs—whose future is intimately tied up with the fate of comprehensive immigration reform—offer ample opportunities for employers to intimidate workers, suppress organizing and drive down labor standards.
“McDonald’s is just the latest in a long line of corporations that have hijacked the US guest worker program to get cheap, exploitable labor, and that’s what the students are,” NGA Executive Director Saket Soni told The Nation. “The conditions are horrific, but have become the norm for guest workers.”
The workers are striking over what they charge are rampant abuses at their stores in Harrisburg and nearby Lemoyne and Camp Hill. According to NGA, the visiting students each paid $3,000 or more for the chance to come and work, and were promised full-time employment; most received only a handful of hours a week, while others worked shifts as long as twenty-five hours straight, without being paid overtime. “Their employer is also their landlord,” said Soni. “They’re earning sub-minimum wages, and then paying it back in rent” to share a room with up to seven co-workers. “Their weekly net pay is actually sometimes brought as low as zero.”
“We are living in [a] basement,” said Rios, “cramped together, with no divisions, in bunkbeds which are meant for children.”
“We suffered some humiliating moments” he added. “Managers would mock us or make fun of us because we were making mistakes at the beginning.” While they had been promised transportation to work, he charged, instead “we have to walk along the highway, and cars pass us by very closely, and on several occasions we were almost hit by cars.”
NGA also charges that management required the guest workers to be on call twenty-four hours a day, ready to show up for work at thirty minutes’ notice, and that workers have been subject to threats and retaliation for speaking up or turning down work. Rios said that once, when he refused a last-minute request to come into work, “they said, ‘OK, then don’t complain when we give you even fewer hours.’ And they did.” Another time, he added, “they actually threatened one of our roommates by saying that they’re just a call away from sending him back to his home country.”
Organizers expect seventeen guest workers to participate in today’s strike, which begins with an 11 am march headed from the basements where they live to the stores where they work. In the coming weeks, workers will travel to Washington, DC, and to McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago, where they will demand that the chain crack down on labor abuses by its franchisees, and that it ensure the workers receive all unpaid wages. “The workers want to bring the problem to the doorstep of their real boss,” said Soni.
“This has really been a nightmare,” said Rios. “Because we paid so much money to come here to make these people richer, and then being mistreated…everything is so bad.”
The guest workers’ strike comes three months after another work stoppage in McDonald’s’ supply chain: As I first reported at Salon, 200 total New York City fast food workers from several fast food companies staged a one-day walkout on November 29. Interviewed last month, New York McDonald’s worker Alterique Hall told The Nation that he was talking with his co-workers about a second, bigger strike, “hopefully soon.”
oday’s strike also bears major similarities to one that took place two years ago, and a few miles away: In August 2011, guest workers on J-1 visas mounted a strikeagainst a Hershey’s Chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Backed by NGA and local organized labor, the workers alleged that Hershey’s had manipulated the J-1 program (and several layers of sub-contracting) in order to replace better-paid union members with temporary guest labor. Under a settlement with the Department of Labor, companies in Hershey’s supply chain ultimately agreed to implement new labor protections, and to pay $213,000 in unpaid wages and $143,000 for health and safety infractions.
Following the well-publicized Hershey’s strike, last year the State Departmentannounced changes to the J-1 program intended to reduce abuse. But Rios said that contacting the State Department a week and a half ago had only made his situation worse. He said that the US government responded by contacting GeoVisions, the organization that sponsored the trip; that triggered an unannounced visit to Rios’s shared basement room by a GeoVisions representative and Rios’s boss, McDonald’s franchisee Andy Cheung. (GeoVisions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Rios said that Cheung yelled at him, while the GeoVisions staffer stood by, hands shaking, acting like Cheung was his boss as well. “You could see he was scared,” said Rios. “He would say things like, ‘This doesn’t look so bad to me.’ ”
“It was clear to everyone that it was an intimidation tactic,” said Soni. According to NGA, Cheung is about to bring another wave of J-1 students into the country to work at his McDonald’s stores.
The McDonald’s work stoppage plays out as Washington debates comprehensive immigration reform, and unions join NGA in warning against expanding guest worker programs without strengthening worker protections. On a conference call last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “History shows us that guest worker programs create a second class of workers.” Since then, the AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce announced agreement on a general framework for a guest worker compromise to be included in an overall bill. That framework reportedlyincludes guest worker protections, but both parties said the details remain incomplete.
NGA members traveled to the capitol last month to seek legislators’ support for the POWER Act, legislative language designed to protect immigrant workers from retaliation for organizing. Interviewed in Spanish (for an article in next month’s issue ofDissent), Martha Uvalle, one of the eight guest workers who went on strike at the Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood last summer, said that if the law doesn’t improve, abuses will continue, and “there will be many more guest workers that come forward to fight. And we hope that, with that effort, someday we will change the structure of all of this.”
Soni said today’s strike “has huge implications for immigration reform” and called it “the greatest example of why we need fundamental changes to guest worker programs…so that any immigrant worker setting foot in the United States has the same rights as American workers.”
“We really don’t want this happening to anyone else,” said Rios. “We don’t want anyone to go through this anymore. That’s why we’re doing this.”