A McDonald’s store in the Philippines. (Flickr)
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.”