TO: DON THOMPSON, MCDONALD’S PRESIDENT AND CEO
Dear Mr. Thompson,
My name is Jorge Rios. I’m a student guestworker from Argentina who came to the U.S. on the State Department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel Program, together with other students from Latin America and Asia.
We paid $3,000-4,000 each to come to the United States on this program, expecting a cultural exchange and good work that would let us earn back this money over three months and travel a bit at the end.
Instead, we became exploited workers at McDonald’s restaurants in Pennsylvania. We had terrible working and housing conditions. We faced threats, stolen wages, grease burns up and down our arms. We were only used to enrich our employer.
We expected to have 40 hours of work a week, but we were given as little as four hours a week at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The employer knew we were desperate for more hours, and he kept us on call to come in with 30 minutes’ notice all day and night. I didn’t even have time to visit the public library.
If we ever answered that we couldn’t work a shift—if someone was sick or exhausted when they got a call at 4 in the morning—the managers retaliated by giving us even less hours.
We could not quit because we knew that if we did, our visas would be cancelled. One manager told us, “You better remember, all we have to do is make one phone call and we can deport you back to your country at any time.”
Our employer Andy Cheung charged us $300 each per month to live in basement apartments he owned. As many as eight of us lived in a single basement. We slept on bunkbeds made for children that shook and squeaked. We had no privacy whatsoever.
When we talked to the U.S. workers alongside us, we learned that they were being exploited too. They told us they also faced too few hours, threats from managers, and unpaid overtime.
This is not the America we believed in. We believe America is a beautiful country, where everyone can have respect and fair treatment at work. We decided to stand up for ourselves, for other J-1 student guestworkers, and for U.S. workers.
Today, with the support of the National Guestworker Alliance, my fellow students and I held a surprise work stoppage at the McDonald’s where we worked. We met with allies from the community, with local workers, and with unemployed people. We told our stories, and said that no one should have to experience what we did.
We asked to meet with our employer Andy Cheung, but he refused. So we are respectfully asking you, as President and CEO of McDonald’s:
1. That McDonald’s pay us students back all the money we are owed, including the money we spent to come work for the company, unpaid overtime, and housing overcharges;
2. That McDonald’s offer full-time work to its U.S. workers, who are struggling with too few hours;
3. That McDonald’s reveal all the stores where it employs guestworkers, and sign an agreement with the National Guestworker Alliance to guarantee basic labor standards for them, including protections from retaliation when workers organize against abuse.
Jorge Rios and the McDonald’s J-1 Student Guestworkers