Student guest workers from Latin America and Asia say they will protest outside a McDonald’s restaurant in New York City’s Times Square Thursday to call attention to alleged labor abuses by a Pennsylvania franchisee.
Holding a strike last week at three Harrisburg, Pa.-area McDonald’s restaurants owned by franchisee Andy Cheung, 15 students alleged they were exploited for sub-minimum wages. The students came to the United States through the State Department’s J-1 visa program, or Summer Work Travel Program.
The students claimed that, after spending between $3,000 and $4,000 apiece to participate in the J-1 program, which the State Department provides to give foreign students the chance to live, work and learn in the United States, they were treated to substandard working conditions. They allege too few hours or too many hours without overtime pay, as well as sub-par housing conditions.
In an official statement provided to Nation’s Restaurant News, McDonald’s Corp. said: “We take the well-being of the employees working in McDonald’s restaurants seriously. We are currently investigating this matter and will be providing resources to franchisees who may participate in the guest worker program to ensure they understand both the letter and spirit of all the requirements of the State Department’s J-1 visa program, as well as all applicable laws and the expectations for full compliance by McDonald’s.”
Spokeswoman Heather Oldani confirmed that McDonald’s does not hire guest workers through the J-1 visa program for its company-owned restaurants.
The student guest workers have filed official complaints with the Department of State and the Department of Labor last week against Cheung and Chesterfield, N.H.-based labor supplier GeoVisions, the sponsoring company that recruited and placed the students through the J-1 summer work program.
In a statement emailed to NRN, GeoVisions chief executive Kevin Morgan said student guest workers’ health, safety and welfare are “of prime concern to us, and our goal is to respond to students’ concerns and issues in a prompt and helpful manner to ensure that their program is meaningful and successful.”
The student guest workers are supported and organized by advocacy group National Guestworker Alliance, and have called for a meeting with McDonald’s Corp. chief executive Don Thompson. In addition to protests planned Thursday in New York, the group also plans to protest this month outside McDonald’s Oak Brook, Ill., corporate headquarters, as well as Thompson’s home.
Mark Davidson, an immigration attorney and partner with Chicago-based Davidson & Schiller LLC, noted that, as with any initiative, employers could abuse the J-1 visa program, but a large number of businesses hire guest workers and pay them fairly as intended. There are several legitimate purposes for J-1 visas, from universities using them to attract specialized researchers from abroad, to large seasonal businesses like The Walt Disney Co. and Great America, who like to staff their theme parks with international students.
A minimum-wage service industry like quick-service restaurants using the J-1 visa program is not uncommon, he said.
“I don’t know individual employers’ motivations, but it might have something to do with wanting some international flair on their staff, or perhaps there’s not a large supply of people near them to work in the restaurants,” Davidson said. “But certainly lots of companies use the program.”
McDonald’s operates or franchises more than 34,000 restaurants worldwide, including more than 14,000 locations in the United States.
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] .
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