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Firms avoid foreign workers, 'guilt by association'

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In the corporate world, there is a lot of skepticism about hiring foreign student workers even if problems are rare.

In many cases, companies steer clear of foreign youth, like those alleging mistreatment and labor law violations by a local McDonald's franchisee, out of concern their businesses will be dragged into the mire without actual wrongdoing, executives said.

Foreign student workers who are part of the U.S. State Department's J-1 visa work-travel program allege that Andy Cheung, an owner of McDonald's franchises in Cumberland and Dauphin counties, provided substandard housing and violated labor laws. The students allege Cheung charged them for cramped living conditions in basements, cut promised work hours and then required "on-call" time, according to the National Guestworker Alliance.

The alliance, a guest-worker-rights advocacy group, helped the students organize protests and take their complaints to the U.S. Labor and State departments. It's also the group that organized J-1 students two years ago when complaints surfaced around an Exel warehouse near Palmyra where Hershey candy was boxed.

Exel, Lemoyne staffing company SHS Group and the Center for Educational Travel USA were fined more than $350,000 in that case. Hershey was not fined or involved in the investigation. The federal agencies said they're investigating the latest J-1 allegations.

These cases highlight why many companies stay far from such programs, said James Carchidi, executive vice president of JFC Staffing Cos. in Lemoyne. It's good when mistreatment of workers is exposed, but it casts a negative light on all companies in those programs, he said.

"It just looks like guilt by association," he said.

That's why JFC doesn't participate in foreign student worker and guest worker programs, he said. It also can chase away client companies that want to avoid any such associations to their brands, he said.

Additionally, there are ample opportunities to recruit people from local communities to fill the jobs they're helping other companies staff, he said.

"Until we absolutely see it as a necessity, it's not going to be something we participate in," Carchidi said.

Companies shouldn't be afraid of the program, said Craig Shagin, an immigration lawyer with Harrisburg-based The Shagin Law Group. Cases of abuse are rare and don't reflect the overall nature of J-1 visa programs,

"The idea is to have cultural exchange, and it's a good program for that," he said.

The J-1 program was started in 1961 as a cultural exchange to improve U.S. relations and its image with young people around the world. Summer Work Travel is just one of many programs. In 2012, there were 91,600 J-1 participants and 12,239 participants in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of State. The work travel program had 2,845 participants in Pennsylvania.

Cultural exchange programs that bring students and workers to the U.S. can be invaluable tools for some companies, Shagin said. For example, hotels and other international service companies use them to bring skilled workers such as chefs to the U.S. to learn about corporate culture, expand worker skills and standardize the brand worldwide, he said.

If companies want to stay on the right side of the law, they need to abide by all applicable employment laws for their industry, Shagin said.

For example, program sponsors and employers must provide clean, safe living conditions, he said. Separate living areas based on gender for privacy and safety is a good idea. And helping the students access medical care also is a must, he said.

Companies should provide good working conditions and hours, accurately outlined in their program descriptions to students, Shagin said.

Essentially, companies should provide conditions and treatment that U.S. college-age students would expect, he said.

And companies shouldn't use programs to cut corners in workforces for profit, Shagin said. That's a sure-fire way to get your company in trouble and create larger ill-will among the international community, he said.

"Why you think you can treat a foreigner with greater disregard than an American is utterly beyond me," Shagin said. "It should be opposite. You should treat them better and protect them as guests to our country."

Most organizations and companies in such programs abide by that ethic, said Brad Jones, vice president of Harrisburg-based Harristown Enterprises Inc., which operates International House in the city. International House brings U.S. and foreign young people together under exchange programs to live, travel, work and learn together.

"We want them to speak positively about America when they go home," Jones said.

Central Pennsylvania is a great area for cultural exchange because of its proximity to the largest East Coast cities, as well as the many people in the area who are equally interested in learning about foreign cultures, he said.

"We want to highlight the good stories," Jones said, "and that is sometimes hard to get out."

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, distribution, transportation and logistics. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jimr@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JimTRyanCPBJ.

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