Saturday, March 9, 2013

Foreign students protest working conditions at PA McDonald's.

Via the Wall Street Journal and others comes news of foreign student workers protesting conditions at the Harrisburg McDonald's at which they were placed through agencies under the auspices of the Exchange Visitor Program:
This week, [Argentine college student Jorge] and 14 other foreign students demonstrated outside a McDonald's after filing complaints with the State Department and Labor Department saying they were exploited at fast-food outlets in the Harrisburg, Penn., area and housed in substandard conditions. The students were on a three-month J-1 visa for work and travel.
. . .
The students in Harrisburg, including those from Malaysia, China, Peru and Chile, said they were attracted by ads on their university bulletin boards and websites, such as one by a company called Out of the Box Personal Development in Kuala Lumpur, touting "a unique opportunity to live life in the USA—up close and personal!"

Lee Siew Yeen, a director for Out of the Box, said she was surprised by the complaints and would reach out to the students. "There was a housing issue. Other than that they weren't going through anything that was different from other students," she said. "They were pretty happy."

On arrival, the university students were assigned to one of three McDonald's in the Harrisburg area. Some said they were given so few hours that they hardly earned any money after their boss and landlord deducted rent from their paychecks. Others said they were forced to work shifts as long as 25 hours straight without being paid for overtime.

"Since I got to the States, I have been working just to pay to live in a basement," says Mr. Rios, who arrived in mid-December and shares the one-room space with five other foreigners who work at the same outlet. He said he worked about 25 hours a week earning $7.25 an hour and Mr. Cheung, his boss, deducted weekly rent of $75 from his pay.

Fast food places all over the area employ foreign students here on J-1 visas, and if authorities were interested in collecting evidence of exploitation they wouldn't have to look too hard. (Of course, foreign workers will be reticent to complain publicly, both because it's rude and because they'll get locked out of their houses as these Harrisburg students were). I have friends and former co-workers from Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and Peru who used to live and work in western Pennsylvania---placed by the company named in the Wall Street Journal---and dealt with similar conditions. The applicants paid thousands of dollars to enter a work exchange program for periods ranging from four to twelve months, were paid just above minimum wage, and were living with two or three other workers in a one-room apartment run by a local slum lord (out of necessity because it was the only apartment complex within walking distance to the restaurant). Considering they earned just above minimum wage and had hundreds of dollars per month deducted for rent they usually didn't break even on their investment. And considering they lived in an area untouched by public transportation, their opportunities to visit the city (or leave it) during their contracts ranged from limited to non-existant and the numerous ESL and integration opportunities in the suburbs were off-limits. One group of Indians living four to a one-room played card games every night to determine who would get the bed and who would sleep on the floor. Another group from Vietnam was sent to western Pennsylvania after a month of living in trailers on the parking lot of a theme park in California. Needless to say, it's difficult to have any meaningful cultural exchange or experiences under these circumstances. What compounds these problems is employers who import these guest workers and who, through either ignorance or malevolence, are not prepared for what hosting international guest workers entails and who don't consider creating a positive experience part of their responsibilities.

For additional reading on local complaints, the Post-Gazette published news of protests by J-1 workers at Hershey Park in 2011.
The program deducts students' housing costs, plus bus and drug testing fees, from their paychecks, which they said will leave them with only $100 a week, or $1,200 at the end of their three-month stay, far less than what they paid to participate.

"They promised me I would be here to work and travel. The reality is I work and sleep every day," said Li Chanjuan, 22, a Chinese student [protesting in Pittsburgh]. When students complained about the large amount of manual labor, they were threatened with the loss of their visas, he said.

"I wanted to improve my English, but I have only improved my muscle," said Feti Karademir, a student from Turkey.