HARRISBURG, Pa. - One would think that someone working more than eight hours a day would be compensated fairly 127 years after the Haymarket affair, and one would think that packing workers into slums, dormitories, or basements would have been settled 106 years after Upton Sinclair released The Jungle, but for many living in this country these experiences are still a reality.
These realities are still prevalent because we live in a country that still allows the managerial aristocracy to exploit workers on a daily basis. These realities are still prevalent because the United States has some of the worst labor laws in the modern industrialized world. These realities are still prevalent because we have stood on the sidelines while our unionized labor force has been shrunk to the lowest density since 1929 - the run up to Great Depression.
Last Sunday at the Harrisburg Quaker Meetinghouse, I had the chance to sit and listen to a small group of college students from Latin America and Asia talk about the American Dream they have been experiencing as part of their J-1 student visa "cultural exchange." Today those same students and more are walking off their jobs in protest against the exploitative working and living conditions McDonald's has provided them with. Their American Dream was a far cry from that fantasy of the "Shining City on the Hill" that President Ronald Reagan made famous during the 1980's.
Just like the international students who rallied against Hershey in September 2011, these students came to the United States through the State Department's J-1 student visa program, and they organized with the National Guestworker Alliance - a non-profit advocacy organization based out of New Orleans - to expose their horrid working and living conditions. Instead of the Hershey Corporation, the culprit this time is a local McDonald's chain in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
Two of the students who did most of the speaking at the meeting were Fernando, from Peru, and Allyson, from Paraguay (I will not use their last names so their identities remain concealed). Their experiences relating to their exploitation on the job may differ, but they and their fellow co-workers are experiencing the same horrid living conditions. Fernando, who is a communications major in his home country, was the first of three students who shared their stories at the meetinghouse. In his home university, he stated that he saw a flier hanging on a bulletin board advertising an opportunity to study and work abroad in the United States. He told everyone in the room that he had to pay around $3,000 to join this program. He noted that other students had to pay between $3,000 and $5,000 to participate in the same program. To make matters worse, he took out a loan from close family members so he could join the J-1 program.
From there his story of optimism and hope quickly turned downhill.
The living conditions for the students who are in this program are horrid. As Fernando and Allyson were explaining, there are at least six to eight male and female students living in the basements of three houses, and all of these houses are owned by McDonald's managers. In exchange for living in these houses, the roommates have to pay $2,000 each, which is automatically taken out of their paychecks. There are no rooms; they are all living in an open single room, and they are sleeping on paper-thin bunk bed mattresses.
As Fernando kept on telling us, "We're paying $2,000 to live like this? To live inside the bottom of a basement?" Throughout their session, Fernando was hesitant when he kept saying "home," because he knew that he wasn't living in a home. The managers, who locked the workers inside the basement, were enjoying all the luxuries of the home the workers were trapped in.
As Allyson explained, the working conditions for these students weren't much better; in fact, they were reminiscent of the days of the early Industrial Revolution. To get to work on a daily basis, some of the students had to spend a good portion of their trip, maybe 10 to 15 minutes, walking along the curb of a major interstate, but if they were to get a ride to and from work from their employer, that ride would be automatically deducted from their paycheck - money they never got to see. While at work, these "students" were often forced to work from 6 or 7 in the morning to as late as 11 at night with only one 30 minute to one hour break. And to top it off, these students were paid minimum wage for all the hours they worked, despite working well over 40 hours per week, qualifying them for overtime pay.
Allyson recalled a story of these exploitative working conditions when she worked an eight-hour shift, and stopped working after that. She showed defiance to her managers by refusing to work extra hours, demanding that she'd be taken back to her house - or her basement.
Fernando told us about a story of retaliation from his employer. When he spoke out against the company's tactics, the manager gave Fernando a four-hour work week. When Fernando was explaining this story, he asked, "How am I supposed to pay a $300 rent when only working four hours in one week?"
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To keep the workers divided, Allyson reported that half of the students were forced to work an 11 p.m.-7 a.m. overnight shift. This is an old tactic used by managers to keep the workers from organizing. But these students are finally ready to tell McDonald's, "Enough!"
Along with speaking out against their employer, one of the main objectives for the two National Guestworker Alliance organizers, Nelson and Sarah, was to allow these students to see what the real America looks like - to meet Americans who would not stand for these kind of abuses. After this work action, the two organizers are planning on taking the students on a speaking tour where they will go to universities and communities between Camp Hill and Washington, D.C. to share their experiences. When the meeting at the Quaker House ended, one of the activists explained that the America they witnessed is the America millions across this country witness on a day to day basis, by working 50, 60, and sometimes 70 hours a week without proper overtime pay just so that they can make a living. Even though these students were complete strangers to everyone inside that room, an unbreakable bond of solidarity was built between everyone that afternoon.
Photo: Exploited exchange students protest McDonald's abusive working conditions. RagingChickenPress.org