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Firms avoid foreign workers, ‘guilt by association’

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,

Jim T. Ryan

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