A McDonald's franchisee will pay $205,971 in damages and back pay to 291 workers who were subjected to threats of deportation after they complained about 25-hour shifts.
The employees, who were working at McDonalds under a cultural exchange program, said they were forced to work shifts that ran longer than a day and pay for housing in the basement of the franchisee, where their rent was nearly in line with what they were paid. They had come to the United States under the State Department's Summer Work travel program; some had paid $3,000 on the promise of full-time work but were given only a handful of hours a week.
“Nothing that they told me is true, because everything [was] a lie,” onetime employee Luis Fernando Suarez told Salon's Josh Eidelson last year. He said the program had “like an ugly face of the United States … I didn’t feel safe.”
Most of the students came to the U.S. from Latin America and Asia under the Summer Work program, "to experience and to be exposed to the people and way of life in the United States."
Instead, they were put to work at McDonald's in Pennsylvania, under franchisee Andy Cheung. According to the settlement, Cheung forced the students to work long hours without paying overtime and deducted money from their paychecks as "rent" for having them sleep on bunkbeds in his basement.
Fifteen students filed complaints with the Labor Department and staged a strike. Cheung was later forced to sell his restaurants by McDonald's.
"Mr. Cheung is no longer a McDonald's franchisee, and we have no knowledge of the settlement," a McDonald's spokeswoman told MarketWatch following the settlement, which was announced Tuesday. " We take the well-being of employees working in McDonald's restaurants, including foreign student workers, seriously."
But is Cheung an exception?
Salon's Eidelson suggests not. In interviews with the students and their advocates, he paints a picture of individuals being exploited under U.S. immigration laws.
“The conditions at this McDonald’s were not the exception, but rather an extreme version of the rule,” he quotes National Guestworker Alliance director Saket Soni as saying. “If the workers didn’t go on strike, I don’t think any of this would have come out.”
“[It's'] a shame that workers have to go that far just to be paid the meager salary that they earned, but that was stolen from them," Soni added.
Undocumented workers also face retaliation for reporting rights abuses. Antonio Vanegas, 26, told Huffington Post last July that his employer had no problems with his immigration status until he accused him of withholding his wages.
Vanegas said he was paid under the table at $6.50 per hour, well below Washington, D.C.'s $8.25 minimum wage. He claims he worked more than 40 hour weeks but was never paid time and a half, as federal law requires. After taking part in a one-day strike and being featured in an In These Times story, he was stopped by an agent of a Homeland Security division coming to work.
Now the Guatemalan migrant is stuck in deportation proceedings.
"This country is a country of laws," Vanegas, 26, told the Post. "Regardless of my status, I should have some protections based on the labor laws that have been violated."
The National Guest Worker Alliance's Soni agreed. She told Eidelson migrant workers can help the push for raising fast food wages, saying, “workers who are at the bottom … are the most vulnerable, but they can also be ones who move to action and raise the floor for everyone else.”
Of the 291 employees Cheung settled with, 178 were foreign workers. The Labor Department slapped Cheung with a $5,000 fine.
Video of the students training for a protest on workers' rights and encouraging other workers to fight for theirs inside a franchise, along with interviews with workers, follows.
[Photo credit: Shutterstock]