Labor abuse complaints lodged by midstate foreign student workers help spur federal legislation
June 10, 2013
Labor abuse complaints lodged by foreign students who worked for two central Pennsylvania employers during the past two years helped produce legislation pending in the U.S. Senate, which advocates said would “go a long way” toward preventing similar situations in the future.
International students who worked for a third-party vendor at a Hershey Co. packing plant in Palmyra, and students employed by a Middletown-based McDonald’s franchisee, held a series of work-stoppage protests in August 2011 and March of this year.
The students said they paid exorbitant fees to participate in a cultural work exchange program through the U.S. Department of State’s Summer Work Travel Program, which provided little cultural enrichment and ample amounts of backbreaking work for little pay.
The latest controversy involved students working at some midstate McDonald’s franchises who were being housed in properties owned by the restaurants’ proprietor, Andy Cheung.
Following a protest organized March 6 with help from the National Guestworker Alliance at Cheung’s golden arches on Trindle Road in Hampden Township, international students filed complaints with the U.S. Department of State.
They said Cheung forced them to work double and triple shifts without overtime, while stuffing up to eight at a time in the basements of his houses, where they lived as he deducted rent from their minimum wage paychecks.
To promote the passage of Senate Bill 744, which would establish safeguards and severe penalties against recruiters and employers who take advantage of foreign workers, students formerly employed at the Hershey’s site and at Cheung’s restaurants, and anti-labor abuse advocates spoke about the need for program reform during a Monday morning teleconference with reporters.
“Some of the students were really afraid, and didn’t want to be part of (the protests),” said Decibal Bilan, a Romanian student who worked at Hershey’s Palmyra packing plant. “Now, after all this, I hope this should change, and new law should offer support.”
S. 744 has received bi-partisan support, and the Senate is expected to adopt the measure before it adjourns for its July 4 recess.
The legislation, which was crafted by four Republicans and four Democrats who have been dubbed the “Gang of Eight,” was taken up by the Senate, on Monday. It’s considered an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.
The U.S. House is expected to take up its own immigration legislation in August, and hearings could produce a law that would instill more protection for students in the U.S. Department of State program by the fall.
S. 744 also speaks to the human trafficking epidemic that exists in the United States, and would include protections for migrant workers.
It would do the following to protect foreign student workers:
- Create a registration requirement, which would force foreign worker recruiters to notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to identify and register the employees they are recruiting;
- Require a background check of recruiters to ensure they haven’t broken the law;
- Require recruiters to post bond to cover the wages of workers they employ;
- Require recruiters to identify employers, the work students will do and the wages and type of visas they will use;
- Allow workers to bring complaints to DHS, with the ability to file civil charges.
- Limit recruiter fees;
- Bar recruiters who violate SB744 from the program for a period of time;
- Protect workers against retaliation and deportation, both of which have been threatened by employers, as cases are investigated;
- Carry fines of $10,000 per violation in civil lawsuits. Fines could be imposed per worker. Statutory penalties of up to $500,000 also could be imposed.
Much of the public controversy has centered on jobs in the hospitality industry, but similar situations have surfaced in the teaching and health care fields, according to experts who participated in Monday’s discussion.
A worker would have three years to file a complaint with DHS, under S. 744.
And if a decision has not been made within 180 days of filing a complaint, the worker could file a grievance against the employer with a federal District Court, said Sarah Rempel, policy attorney for Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc.
“We are all clear on what has been reported in media. These provisions should easily gain bipartisan support,” Rempel said of whether similar legislation will win approval in the House.
“What has been striking to our group is that regardless of sector, or visa category, there are common abuses” covered by S. 744.
Bruce Goldstein, president of advocacy organization, Farmworker Justice, said many employers prefer guest workers over American workers, who are not under the same economic pressures and put up with terrible working conditions for fear of losing their jobs and being deported.
Ingrid Cruz, a teacher from the Phillippines, paid more than $15,000 for an opportunity to become a robotics teacher in Louisiana.
She and other foreign teachers working in Louisiana paid recruiting agencies between $15,000 to $20,000 to teach in the U.S.
After taking on high-interest loans and even selling family dwellings at home, some foreign teachers were forced to sign one-sided contracts that favored the recruitment agencies, she said.
They also had to contend with high rent and visa violations created by the same agency, she said.
“I can still remember how difficult it was to sign a one-sided contract, with conditions only favorable to this agency,” Cruz said. “Considering we were left with nothing to go back to, we were left with no other choice at this time.”
The U.S. Department of Labor has confirmed that it is investigating the complaints filed by seven of the foreign student workers employed by Cheung.
And the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Summer Work Travel Program, is nearing the end of its investigation of GeoVisions, the New Hampshire-based host company that worked with Cheung to bring the students to the midstate, a bureau official said.
When asked to comment on the student allegations, Cheung, who is still operating his restaurants but is in the process of selling the six midstate locations at the request of McDonald’s Corp., said he has yet to receive any type of reprimand from authorities.
Should it be adopted, S. 744 has key protections that would allow workers to remain in the U.S. and participate in investigations as worker abuse complaints are investigated, Goldstein said.
“We believe this bill is a huge step forward,” he said.