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Last week (March 6), McDonald’s, the international fast-food juggernaut, was surprised and, one hopes, publicly embarrassed when a group of student “guest workers” in central Pennsylvania called an impromptu strike to protest working conditions. According to these guest workers, McDonald’s failed to comply with the terms of their agreement, and used intimidation and threats or retaliation to keep them at bay.
These “guests” (from Latin America and Asia) came to the U.S. under the J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program, part of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (AKA the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961). A J-1 is a “non-immigrant visa,” given to visitors who participate in programs designed to promote cultural exchange. Inaugurated in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the program was both a valid attempt to introduce foreigners to the American Way of Life as well as a standard propaganda tool.
Originally, the program’s charter had it focusing primarily on medical or business training, along with visiting scholars who were in the U.S. temporarily to teach and do research. And because it was specifically a cultural exchange program, the J-1 visa fell under the auspices of the now defunct USIA (United States Information Agency) rather than the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). How it evolved from medical and business training to flipping hamburgers is easily explained. Business interests lobbied hard for its expansion.
These visiting workers have turned out to be a bonanza. Each year hundreds of thousands of them are brought to the United States under programs like J-1, and, according to the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), the agency that keeps track of them (and who encouraged and supported the McDonald’s protest), these so-called “cultural exchanges” have, over the years, been badly compromised. Given the overwhelming temptation to engage in mischief, employee abuse is now rampant.
What’s happened is that guest workers are now viewed by American businesses as a “captive workforce”—a gullible and needy collection of workers unschooled in American customs and expectations, and without recourse to labor laws or union representation. Not surprisingly, these visitors are being systematically screwed over. According to the NGA, the McDonald’s “employees” had paid approximately $3,000 each for the opportunity to work in the United States. Presumably, that money was spent on transportation costs and fees to GeoVision, the for-profit organization that sponsored them.
Among the “abuses” alleged by McDonald’s guest workers: (1) They’d been promised full-time jobs, but most were given only a few hours a week. (2) They were nonetheless forced to be on call twenty-four hours a day, and were intimidated and threatened if they complained. (3) The company failed to pay them overtime they were entitled to. (5) According to NGA, their employer is also their landlord, and even though there are as many as half a dozen co-workers sharing a room, their rent (which is automatically taken out of their paycheck) renders them making less than minimum wage. Any complaints, and they’re threatened with being sent back home.
None of this should come as a surprise. When there’s an opportunity to lower operating costs by exploiting labor, management will usually take advantage of it. Call it the Law of the Jungle, call it succumbing to market forces, call it “gaining a competitive edge.” But whatever we choose to call it, it’s the workers who get skinned.
Southern California’s restaurant and car-washing industries are sparkling examples of this phenomenon. These businesses are notorious for exploiting frightened, undocumented Mexican workers by paying them less than minimum wage, and breaking with impunity every labor and safety statute in the book. Why? Because they CAN. After all, who’s going to report them?
David Macaray, CounterPunch’s labor correspondent, is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition). He was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com