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Student guest workers on the J-1 cultural exchange visa program walked out of their jobs at Pennsylvania McDonald's restaurants Wednesday morning, citing abuses of the same kinds that caused a walkout from a Hershey's supplier in summer 2011. As a result of that strike, the State Department investigated the program and strengthened protections somewhat, but not enough, according to analysts at the time and as demonstrated by the fact that once again student guest workers are coming forward with allegations of wage and hour abuses and having unreasonable rents deducted from their paychecks for basement rooms shared by several people.
While at work, these “students” were often forced to work from 6 or 7 in the morning to as late as 11 at night with only one 30 minute to hour break. And to top it off, these students are paid minimum wage for all the hours they worked, despite working well over 40 hours per week, qualifying them for overtime pay. [...] Fernando told us about a story of retaliation from his employer. When he spoke out against the company’s tactics, the manager gave Fernando a 4 hour work week. When Fernando was explaining that this story to the room, he asked, “how am I suppose to pay a $300 rent when only working 4 hours in 1 week?”
Rios said that the US government responded by contacting GeoVisions, the organization that sponsored the trip; that triggered an unannounced visit to Rios’ shared basement room by a GeoVisions representative and Rios’ boss, McDonalds 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.’”
Participants pay $3,000 or more for the chance to join the program, which is billed as cultural exchange, an opportunity to experience the United States. Arguably, being mistreated at a low-wage job is an important part of the American experience these days, but should the State Department really be running that?