Workers in UK protest the exploitation of J-1 migrant workers at McDonald’s By Joyce Sinakhone The J-1 guestworker program is the largest of its kind in the U.S. admitting foreign born workers into full- or part-time job positions such as au pairs, rid …

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Workers in UK protest the exploitation of J-1 migrant workers at McDonald's

Workers in UK protest the exploitation of J-1 migrant workers at McDonald’s

By Joyce Sinakhone

The J-1 guestworker program is the largest of its kind in the U.S. admitting foreign born workers into full- or part-time job positions such as au pairs, ride operators at amusement parks, hotel maids, dairy farm laborers, to name a few (Economic Policy Institute, 2011). The Congressional statement of purpose in the Fulbright-Hays Act asserted:

[The J-1 visa program enables] the Government of the United States to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange; to strengthen the ties which unite us with other nations by demonstrating the educational and cultural interests, developments, and achievements of the people of the United States and other nations, and the contributions being made toward a peaceful and more fruitful life for people throughout the world; to promote international cooperation for educational and cultural advancement; and thus to assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic, and peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world. (Fulbright-Hays Act, 1961)

Jennifer Rosenbaum of NGA contended that the J-1 program, developed in 1965, was originally meant to serve as a “Cold-War-era diplomatic tool”- spreading the principles of American culture to young people around the world (Rosenbaum, 2013, para. 2). These days, according to a report prepared by the Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law and NGA, guestworkers are regularly used as a cheap and vulnerable alternative to U.S. workers (“Leveling Playing Field,” 2012).

In addition to providing a ‘cultural exchange,’ companies that recruit student workers often promise a tried-and-true system that provides security and administrative support. Geovisions’ website stated: “Most GeoVisions employers have had foreign students work for them before, and most of our employers have selected GeoVisions for many years.  All of our employers arrange housing for students, and, before you leave your home country, you will know your general type of job, your wages, and the cost of housing” (Geovisions, n.d.a).

Geovisions’ website also offers a quote from popular Travel Channel celebrity, Anthony Bourdain, urging students to explore all possibilities to travel and achieve personal growth. There is also no lack of testimonials or photos of smiling participants in exotic locations. The South Africa testimonial corresponded with a photo of a young man walking down a dirt road with a lion. “If you’re physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live, eat and cook. Learn from them wherever you go.” -Anthony Bourdain (Geovisions, n.d.b)

“Without GeoVisions, this would have been only a dream. Assuming I could have dreamt such a thing. But participating on this volunteer abroad project changed my life forever”. Name: Gary Westfall, Destination: East London, South Africa (Geovisions, n.d.b)

Clearly, some J-1 guestworkers have positive experiences in the program, as evidenced in one guestworker’s exchange last year. NGA organizer Sarah David Haydeman agrees that many participants cycle through the program without encountering problems. She noted, however, genuinely positive culture exchanges are “not because of the program, [but] in spite of the program. It’s because the individual employer… chooses to treat them well. The program itself really isn’t able to be monitored by the Department of State.” (S. David Heydemann, personal communication, March 16, 2013).

A report by the Economic Policy Institute (Costa, 2011a) found that the State Department outsourced monitoring and oversight of the program to entities that had an interest in ensuring profitability: program sponsors such as Geovisions. Such companies were in no position to enforce standards, as it would have impacted the financial success of the company (Costa, 2011a).

Employers who hire guestworkers benefited from this lack of monitoring and enforcement; in displacing U.S. workers, employers avoided having to pay prevailing wages under State Department regulations, as well as payroll taxes, state taxes and health care costs (Costa, 2011b). Ontiveros (2012) argued that the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery or involuntary servitude, should be used to protect the rights of immigrants and guestworkers.

The abuses that J-1 workers experience are indicative of a larger problem of enforcement. The Department of State’s monitoring program of 13 inspectors for over 350,000 students couldn’t begin to meet the needs of current and future guestworkers (Costa, 2012). Additionally, the State Department’s Inspector General has issues reports denouncing the program’s lack of monitoring and an absence of data that hinders them from being able to make meaningful recommendations (Costa, 2011a).

Yet, program participation has grown by 96 percent over the past 21 years (Costa, 2011a). For these reasons, the McDonald’s guestworkers demanded that an agreement be reached concerning working conditions for all workers, as the exploitation of guestworkers depresses wages for all U.S. workers (S. David Heydemann, personal communication, March 16, 2013).


On March 15, 2013, days after the students filed a complaint with the Department of State, McDonald’s cut ties with the students’ employer Andy Cheung, and forced the franchise owner to sell all 13 of his Harrisburg restaurants (Parisian, 2013; Veronikis, 2013a, Eidelson, 2013, March 14). This reaction represented a step forward for the workers.

Whether McDonald’s response to the student protests had an impact on its labor practices is unlikely. Importantly, the students believed that their struggle represented broader issues that all workers face. Perhaps that is why even after workers’ visas expired; the former student guestworkers continued the campaign from their home countries. Allies in about 30 countries participated in an international day of action on June 6, 2013 (“Global Day Action,” n.d.).

Jorge Rios, 27, from Argentina spoke to supporters at a Chicago demonstration:

At first, I thought we were being exploited because we were guestworkers, but the more I spoke to others about my experience, the more I realized that McDonald’s workers all across the country are facing the exact same work conditions that I did. The only difference is, I can return to my country soon and this nightmare will be over. For the tens of thousands of other McDonald’s workers right here in the U.S., the nightmare never ends.” (Parisian, 2013, para. 5)

When vulnerable workers stand up against intimidation and exploitation, they fight for all U.S. workers while putting their own livelihoods on the line. In an op-ed article about low-wage workers, Richard Eskow stated,

The fight for both — good jobs and a [fair] wage — is a fight to improve the economy for all of us. Economies don’t grow by trickling down from the rich. They grow from the bottom up, as lower-income people improve their standard of living and increase the consumption of consumer goods. They also grow from the middle out, as the middle class is once again able to spend its way into a better life — for itself, and for everyone.” (Eskow, 2013, para. 23)

As low-wage occupations continue to grow and fuel our economic recovery (National Employment Law Project, 2012)–whether workers are able to earn a decent living or not–we are lucky to have those who are willing to endanger their already precarious situations for the sake of broader society. When asked what would he say to Andy Cheung if he could say anything at all, a 24-year-old student worker from Chile stated, “He just messed with the wrong people this time,” (personal communication, March 16, 2013).

You can read Joyce’s other articles on the J-1 guestworkers programme below, and follow her on twitter @JSinakhone :

  1. United States: low wage workers movements

  2. Guestworkers in the US: Mcdonalds and Hershey




Center for Immigration Studies. (2013). Nearly 700,000 guestworker visas issued in 2012. Retrieved April 14, 2013

Costa, D. (2011a). Guestworker diplomacy: J visas receive minimal oversight despite significant implications for the U.S. labor market. Economic Policy Institute, (317), 1–47.

Costa, D. (2011b). Facilitating diplomacy and cultural exchange, or providing temporary labor? [PowerPoint slides] Retrieved on April 18, 2013 from

Economic Policy Institute. (2011). Public commentary from the Economic Policy Institute: Exchange visitor program—summer work travel program. Retrieved on April 18, 2013.

Eidelson, J. (2013). Striking guest workers will take McDonald’s fight global. Retrieved on April 18, 2013.

Eskow, R. (2013, August 8). The fast-food strikers are fighting for all of us. The Huffington Post. Retrieved on August 30, 2013.

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Jamieson, D. (2013, June 19). Bernie Sanders: Immigration reform should rein in guest worker programs. Huffington Post. Retrieved on August 28, 2013.

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Luce, S. (2013). The good, the bad, and the ugly: A Labor Day assessment of the past year. New Labor Forum, 21(3), 66–73. doi:10.1353/nlf.2012.0049

Ontiveros, M. L. (2012). A strategic plan for using the Thirteenth Amendment to protect immigrant workers. Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society, 27(2), 133 -161.

MacDonald, L. (2013). US immigration reform and guest workers – Michael Clemens. Retrieved on August 28, 2013.

Parisian, E. (2013, April 1). They’re not lovin’ it: Striking workers may be McDonald’s worst nightmare. Retrieved on August 30, 2013.

Peterson, K., & Murray, S. (2013). House weighs more guest-worker visas in immigration bill. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on August 30, 2013.

Preston, J. (2012). State Department revises foreign student job program after abuse complaints. Retrieved on April 18, 2012.

National Guestworker Alliance. (n.d.a). Who are guestworkers? Retrieved on April 13. 2013.

National Guestworker Alliance. (n.d.b). NGA wins new protections for Wal-Mart, Hershey’s supply chain workers. Retrieved on April 13.  

National Guestworker Alliance. (n.d.c). Category: Justice at Hershey’s. Retrieved on April 13. 2013.

National Guestworker Alliance. (n.d.c). Notice of failure to comply with J-1 SWT regulations. Retrieved on April 13. 2013.


Rosenbaum, J. J. (2013). Exploitation isn’t “cultural exchange.” CQ Roll Call. Retrieved on August 30, 2013.

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2013). A brief history of guestworkers in America. Retrieved April, 11, 2013.

U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). J-1 visa exchange visitor program. Retrieved on April 18, 2013.

U.S. Department of Labor. (2012). U.S. Labor Department recovers back wages for student workers, fines companies for labor violations at warehouse in Palmyra, PA. Retrieved on April 18, 2013.

Veronikis, E. (2013). McDonald’s cuts ties with midstate operator over guest worker scandal. Retrieved on August 29, 2013.


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