Complaints filed with State & Labor Departments for J1 Exchange Students Allegedly Exploited | St. Louis Employer Immigration Attorney Jim Hacking

McDonald’s Corporation, employer of over 400,000 employees, is under fire for exploiting low skilled workers and housing them in substandard conditions. Argentine college student Jorge Rios was part of a government cultural-exchange program where he expected to earn money and explore the U.S. After spending $3,000 to participate in this program, Rios found himself at the mercy of his employer, a McDonald’s franchisee.

This week, Rios and 14 other foreign students in a similar situation are demonstrating outside at McDonald’s after filing complaints with the State Department and Labor Department claiming they were exploited at fast-food outlets and housed in substandard conditions. The students are in the U.S. on a three-month J-1 visa for work and travel. A McDonald’s spokesperson commented that the chain is looking into the claims by Rios. “The well-being of my employees is a top priority. The employees that are working in my restaurants as part of a guest worker program are no exception.”

Congress’s immigration Overhaul

The controversy with Rios highlights the challenge of creating and managing a new visa program especially for temporary workers. Sen. John McCain, one politician leading the charge, said the visa programs that emerged are some of the toughest issues for the framework for legal status with a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Businesses are also affected by the low skilled labor issues since many worry they will be unable to fill jobs because of the crackdown.

The Summer Work Travel Program

The program promises a chance for foreign students to experience the culture of the U.S. and travel across the country rather than the long hours at low skilled jobs earning minimum wage that some students actually encounter.  Unfortunately, according to Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles immigration attorney and former Naturalization Service official, “This is a cheap-labor program, nothing more. Since when is flipping burgers a cultural exchange?” Upon arrival, students were assigned to work at a McDonalds with so few hours they hardly earned any money after landlords deducted rent from their paychecks. Others were forced to work 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.

The experience these students were looking for has been disappointing and a program initially created by Congress to “strengthen ties which unite us with other nations” has students wishing they could return home sooner.

If you have questions regarding the J-1 visitor program or other issues related to temporary immigrant visas, contact us at 314-961-8200 or visit our contact page.