When a group of young Latin American students arrived in the United States to work as guestworkers at a Pennsylvania McDonald’s, they thought they were in for an amazing experience — a chance to see the US up close, and to experience the culture that defines the country. But that’s not what they got at all.
Instead, Jorge Rios of Argentina, Fernando Accosta from Paraguay, Luis Fernando Suarez Mendosa of Peru, and Rodrigo Yanez of Chile say they saw the worst of American culture: The exploitation of low-wage workers with no voice.
At the McDonald’s where they were sent to work, they report that they were shoved into a basement room with six cots, and forced to pay for the inadequate lodging out of their meager wages — made all the more meager by the fact that their boss wouldn’t give them the 40 hours a week promised.
They also say they had to walk a dangerous highway to get to work:
Adding insult to injury, each student had paid $3,000 just to get into the guestworker program.
But now, in coordination with the broader National Guestworkers Alliance, those students and others have filed complaints with the State Department and Department of Labor. McDonald’s says it is investigating the complaints, which are against a single franchise owner and not the company as a whole.
The students also brought their grievances to the apex of the immigration debate, Capitol Hill, on Wednesday. They told their personal testimonies to legislators, trying to convince them that any immigration overhaul must include the language in the guestworker protections.
“When we asked for solutions, the sponsor didn’t solve our problems. When we asked for help, the Department of State didn’t assist us. I feared losing everything I had spent to come here,” said Jorge Rios, who originally contacted the Guestworker Alliance to report the abuses he experienced, “I feared being devoid of the opportunity to travel around the country. I feared suffering the humiliation of being sent back home. I feared being blacklisted and losing the chance to re-enter the US in the future. I was paralyzed by fear.”
Republicans have insisted that if they are going to consider any immigration reform legislation, a guest worker program must be a part of the package. Such programs generally bring in low-wage workers to do jobs Americans won’t, and those workers remain in the country on a J1 visa for some number of months before returning to their country of origin.
But story after story reveals that such programs have become exploitative, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has refered to the work as “close to slavery.” If an expanded guestworker program does become part of the larger immigration reform package, questions about the guestworker program and its treatment of young students are bound to come up.