McDonald's to audit foreign exchange program

Student workers say they were exploited by the fast-food chain

September 06, 2002|By Walter F. Roche | Walter F. Roche,SUN STAFF

Officials of McDonald's say they have ordered a financial review of an international placement program after exchange students working at the fast-food chain's restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington region complained that they were being exploited.

Robert L. Palmer, the regional marketing director, said the company was in the process of reimbursing students for the $200 housing security deposit they were required to pay as part of the annual program.

Several of the students sent to the Baltimore area charged that, once they arrived in the United States, they were pressured into signing agreements that committed them to paying excessive rent. Five students in Abingdon were paying a total of $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment that normally rents for $750 under a one-year lease.

The rent payments were being deducted from their biweekly paychecks, and as result, their initial paychecks were reduced to zero. They said they were told they would lose their jobs if they abandoned the designated housing.

Palmer said that students were now being advised they are welcome to move to alternative housing if they wish to do so. He did not say if they would be compensated for making inflated rental payments.

"McDonald's continues to take these matters seriously," Palmer said. "We have launched a complete audit ... and we are evaluating our relationship with all agencies associated with this program."

Under the program, some 400 students from Poland, Slovakia and other foreign countries were put to work at McDonald's outlets in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

They came here under a government-sanctioned work and travel program which allows foreign students to work for three months in the United States and spend an additional month traveling.

The students were recruited by Donna Maertens of Virginia, who serves as a consultant to McDonald's. Maertens has defended the program and contrary to the students' charges, insisted that they were not forced or pressured to sign the agreements.

Word of the internal McDonald's review follows a preliminary report from the U.S. Department of State that found the students' complaints "well founded." The conclusion was contained in a recent letter to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Aides to the Maryland Democrat say they expect a more complete report from the State Department soon. The aides said Mikulski would wait for that report before determining whether additional Congressional action is required.

Several of the students have since left their jobs with the restaurant chain and some were able to find alternative housing and employment with the assistance of the local chapter of the Polish American Congress.

Lori Cuonze, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, said yesterday that despite the complaints "the vast majority of the students like the program." She said McDonald's had hired an outside firm to conduct the audit.

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