Striking J-1 students want justice from McDonald’s and U.S. State Department

The student workers who recently went on strike at McDonald’s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania took a big chance. They could have been fired and then deported from the country. Instead, they got their boss fired and got a meeting with the head of the State Department program that brought them to the U.S. But they aren’t finished: they want to make sure that what happened to them never happens to foreign students again.

My colleagues and I met with four of the young workers last week, who came from Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. All had been recruited into the State Department’s J-1 summer work travel visa program by GeoVisions, a State Department-approved sponsor, which promised them three months of steady wages for slinging Big Macs, decent housing and a cultural experience, followed by a month of travel wherever they wanted to go.

What they and 14 other students got was an unpredictable mix of work hours—as little as four hours in a week for some and 25 hours in a row for others. They were required to live in the basements of homes owned by their boss, Andy Cheung, who packed six into one house and eight into another, jammed together with little privacy—only a curtain to separate the beds of four young men from four women. They were cheated on wages they earned, overcharged for their housing and forced to walk to work on highways instead of riding in free transportation they’d been promised. At least one was actually in debt to Cheung after almost 3 months of work.

When they struck in protest, they had the precedent of J-1 students who struck last year in Hershey, Pennsylvania to protest unsafe working conditions, minimum wage violations and broken promises about cultural activities. They also had the help and guidance of the National Guestworker Alliance, which got them legal help, publicity, and community support. The strike made the evening news in Harrisburg, The Nation magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and it embarrassed the McDonald’s Corporation, which went into crisis mode.

After a quick investigation, McDonald’s terminated its franchise agreement with Mr. Cheung, forcing him to sell the half dozen restaurants he owns and quit the board of the Ronald McDonald House charity.

The State Department, it goes without saying, moves more slowly.

  • GeoVisions, which charged the students $3,000 to $4,000 for the privilege of living in a basement and being exploited by a greedy businessman, has not been sacked or suspended, although an investigation is ongoing.
  • Reforms of the J-1 program rules to hold sponsors financially accountable for the housing and work conditions they send students into have been in limbo for a year.
  • Key reforms requested by the National Guestworker Alliance and EPI after last year’s strike in Hershey have never been implemented. Most notably, a safe and effective system for J-1 students to file complaints without fear of retaliation from their sponsor or employer has not been put into effect.

According to the NGA, the very determined and articulate young South Americans I met have already collected over 100,000 signatures, which they handed to the head of security at McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago, with the hopes of getting a meeting with CEO Don Thompson, and demanding from him directly that McDonald’s agree to a corporation-wide new labor rights agreement.

And I’m betting they won’t stop agitating until the State Department deals with GeoVisions and makes sure future students are better protected from abuse and exploitation. With the help of the National Guestworker Alliance and the AFL-CIO, the students might not have to wait for the State Department to get the job done; they might get Congress to fix these problems as a part of comprehensive immigration reform.