J-1 Student Guest Workers Protest Captive Labor Conditions By McDonald’s Franchise Owner in Harrisburg Area

Once again foreign students visiting the U.S. under a program that is supposed to provide educational and cultural exchange, along with employment, has been exposed for misuse and exploitation of the  students for profit.

A rally was held at a McDonalds in a busy suburb outside of Harrisburg on Wednesday, March 6,  by the students demanding better wages and better working and living conditions. They also want the money they paid to participate in the program – about $3,500 each – returned to them.  Joining them in support of fair treatment and justice were Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale, along with several representatives of labor unions and the National Guest Worker Alliance – a  watch dog organization that monitors guest worker programs throughout the U.S. to be sure that they are being run properly and not being manipulated by corporations to exploit guest workers.

The students walked off their jobs at McDonalds and drew public attention to cramped living conditions and the fact that their employer also deducts rent from their paychecks. They were paying rent to the owner who housed them in his basement. The students are also asking the U.S. State Department to bar the organization – GeoVisions – from participation in the J-1 program. GeoVisions, a private organization under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, recruits students from nations around the world to participate in the J-1 program.

The program is supposed to give foreign students the opportunity to live and work in the U.S. for a brief period of time in order to learn about American culture and our way of life. The program is not supposed to be used by Corporations and businesses to pad their wallets and fatten their profits. One of the lessons these students learned is that greed is a universal problem.

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bloomingdale said the situation is very similar to what occurred at the Hershey warehouse in Palmyra in 2011. In that situation over 200 J-1 student staged a sit down strike and numerous protests in Hershey, exposing exploitation and threats of deportation by Hershey Foods contractors and subcontractors. After an investigation by the U.S. State Department the organization that had recruited and placed the students was banned from further participation in the J-1 program. Hershey’s contractors and subcontractors which had employed the students, agreed to an out of court settlement. The settlement included a payment of $213,000 in back wages to 1,028 foreign students who repackaged Hershey candies at the Palmyra distribution center. The students were also demanding that the jobs at the packaging plant be offered to residents in the area.