March 21--The federal government tweaked the program that brought the foreign students who claim they were exploited at three Harrisburg-area McDonald's franchises.
Program rules say, "The students have to be placed in temporary seasonal jobs where no Americans are being displaced."
But a federal spokeswoman couldn't explain how that rule squares with working at McDonald's.
Citing the ongoing investigating, Susan Pittman of the U.S. Department of State said she couldn't discuss specifics related to claims by the McDonald's workers. But she said J-1 students placed in such jobs would be something the state department would investigate.
The students' claims mark the second time in two years such complaints have flared up in the Harrisburg region's back yard.
They also come as critics say the Summer Work Travel program too often serves as a pipeline for cheap, easily exploitable labor.
But Pittman said such problems are by far the exception.
"I would argue that for the most part, the program is exactly what it says it is to be," she said.
The recent complaints involve 14 foreign students who were employed at three Harrisburg-area McDonald's franchises owned by Andy Cheung. They prompted investigations by the state department and the U.S. Labor Department. They further prompted McDonald's to pull the five franchises of Andy Cheung, whose business is based in Middletown.
The earlier complaints involved about 1,000 students who were employed at an Exel Inc. facility that re-packaged candies under a contract with The Hershey Co. in 2011. Federal officials eventually collected $356,000 in fines and back wages from Exel and two other organizations involved in placing the students in the jobs.
One of those organizations, the Council for Education Travel-USA, is the "sponsor" that brought the students to the United States. Also penalized was a staffing firm which placed them in their jobs.
Some of the students who worked at the Cheung-owned McDonald's say they were forced to work excessively long shifts. Others say they weren't given nearly as many hours as promised, and were penalized for complaining.
They said they were required to fill shifts on short notice, making it hard for them to have the cultural exchange experience the SWT program is intended to provide.
They further said up to $85 per week in rent was deducted from their paychecks to live in substandard housing owned by Cheung.
A key player in the SWT program are the "sponsors" that serve as middlemen connecting for foreign students to U.S. employer. Often non-profits, they collect about $1,100 from each student.
The state department's Pittman said the sponsors, which are approved by the state department, are expected to remain in close contact with the foreign students. They are expected to react to any problems related to the host employers. They are further expected to provide a toll free help line at all hours, Pittman said.
Jorge Rios of Argentina, one of the students who worked at a Cheung-owned McDonald's, said he contacted his sponsor, and it did no good.
He also said he discovered his employer had been told of his complaints, and it made his situation worse.
Pittman said the sponsor is also supposed to inform the state department of such complaints. The state department will promptly investigate, she said.
But Pittman cited the ongoing investigation and said he couldn't discuss whether the state department was informed of Rios' complaint and took any action.
The New Hampshire-based sponsor, GeoVisions, as well as Cheung, have declined requests for interviews.
Rios eventually contacted the National Guestworkers Alliance, a union-affiliated advocacy group which intervened on the students' behalf, including filing complains with the state department and the U.S. Labor Department, which also is investigating.
Pittman said the sponsors are responsible for selecting the employers that host the foreign students. She had no information on employers that have run afoul of the program.
There presently are 47 designated sponsors for the SWT program. The state department has penalized three during the past year, she said.
She further said the state department regularly inspects SWT program work sites, including 650 site inspections between May and September of this year.
The state department recently tweaked the rules surrounding the SWT program. Pittman said that had much to with the program surging to include about 150,000 participants per year, which has been deemed too large. This year, the program will have about 93,000, she said.
The tweaks also arose from students being placed in inappropriate or unsafe jobs, she said. The state department refined the list of allowed jobs, eliminating work such as food processing, factory work and construction, and also increased site inspections, she said.
The SWT was created in the early 1960s to build better relations with people in foreign countries. Students, who pay about $3,100 total to come to the United States, typically work for three months and spend a fourth month traveling.
Pittman said surveys of the students show the program still fulfills it original purpose.
"For the most part, we have very positive responses with regard to peoples' experiences," she said.