Foreign student worker details cultural exchange nightmare
The Patriot News
March 11, 2013
Jorge Rios saw young people beaming on posters advertising a cultural exchange program at the university he attends in his native Argentina.
So it didn’t take long before Rios, 27, was on a plane to America to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program.
The program offers foreign students a chance to work in the U.S. for three months, and travel during a fourth month if they so choose.
Rios arrived to the midstate in mid-December, planning to stay three months, while working at McDonald’s and then heading back home with lots of memories.
But instead of working 40 hours per week and soaking in American culture, Rios said he experienced a living nightmare.
He and five other foreign student workers were crammed in a basement living area of an East Pennsboro Township house, which is near the McDonald’s they worked at on Lemoyne Drive.
“When you read that poster, it gave you a very good impression of the experience that you would have here. Because basically, it was about living as an American for three months, and that included working as an American,” Rios said. “They kept promising things would change, things would get better.”
They didn’t, according to Rios.
He and 17 foreign student workers said the owner of six midstate McDonald’s restaurants, Andy Cheung, exploited them at three of his Harrisburg-area locations.
The guest workers and more than 50 supporters held a work-stoppage protest at Chueng’s golden arches on Trindle Road in Hampden Township last week.
They said Cheung either forced them to work too many hours, or too few, and that he made most live in the basement of three houses he owns in the Harrisburg region.
The group decided to begin planning a protest a few weeks ago when they knew things were not going to change.
No longer fearing retaliation from Cheung, students and supporters knew they had to do something to prevent this from happening to others, Rios said.
He said McDonald’s managers told him Cheung has done this to guest workers for years, and foreign students have long complained at work about their treatment.
Federal authorities are interviewing Rios and other students in Harrisburg today about their experiences.
The U.S. Department of State, and the Department of Labor, have both confirmed they are investigating complaints students have filed against Cheung.
East Pennsoro and Hampden townships also said they are investigating whether Cheung has broken municipal regulations in housing students in his basements.
They said Cheung had eight foreign students living in the basement of his house on Maple Avenue in Hampden Township, near the McDonald’s on Trindle Road.
Rios, who studies social communications at the Universidad National Misiones, paid Cheung $85 per week to live in the basement of his house on Circle Drive in East Pennsboro Township.
Rent was deducted from the students’ minimum-wage paychecks, Rios said.
The basement Rios lived in had no separate bedrooms; just bunkbeds, a bathroom and a kitchen.
Rios and his five roommates weren’t given keys, either.
They walked to work on a busy roadway, even though they were promised transportation to and from work, he said.
And when they complained, Rios said Cheung made it clear that they would have been charged for rides to work.
Cheung and his management, who Rios said knew he wanted more hours, also made good on cutting Rios’ work time when he was unable to work additional shifts out of the blue.
He worked on average, 25 hours per week, and often ate once-a-day at work because he could buy his meals there half off. Rios said he didn’t earn enough money during his stay to cover the cost to participate in the exchange program.
He paid $3,500 to participate in the J-1 program.
About $1,000 covered his plane ticket and Visa.
The remainder went to a cultural exchange group in Argentina, and U.S. cultural exchange host organization GeoVisions, which connects foreign student workers with Cheung and other employers.
Neither Cheung nor GeoVisions have returned repeated interview requests.
Rios, like four female students still living at the Maple Avenue house, was locked out of his basement dwelling hours after last week’s protest.
He was able to get some of his belongings out of the house, but left some clothing and other personal effects behind because he hurried out that night to escape the surroundings.
He has stayed in a hotel since, and Rios and other students traveled with the National Guestworker Alliance – the group which helped stage last week’s protest – to Pittsburgh, to participate in community action meetings, a similar protest and take in some sights.
Rios said he has received much warmth and generosity from the midstate community since the protest.
He said he knows Cheung and his actions don’t represent America.
“People are very nice and caring. We are now aware that what we are going through is not the American people,” Rios said. “The very few people I have been able to meet have been very generous and kind, out of their own money, out of their own generosity.”