STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're going to hear a story, now, about a group of foreign college students who came to the United States on cultural work exchange visas. They arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania last December to work at McDonald's. And then their story got interesting.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Shouting) What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting) Justice.
INSKEEP: Justice, they say. Those students are currently on strike. They've filed grievances with the U.S. Labor and State Departments.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Three months ago, Jorge Rios was eagerly doing legwork to land a three-month stint in the U.S.
JORGE RIOS: I had to do a lot of paperwork back in my country, to get the visa. I had to travel long distances because I don't live in the capital of Argentina, I don't live in Buenos Aires, I live 14 hours away from there.
NOGUCHI: Rios borrowed much of the $3,000 it cost. When he arrived, it wasn't what he was told to expect. He was escorted to a room in the basement of a house owned by family of the franchise owner of the McDonald's where he worked. He shared the tiny quarters with seven other students. Each of them got $300 in rent every month deducted from their paychecks - far above market rates.
RIOS: We didn't have any privacy, we didn't have any divisions. We slept in bunk beds which were meant for children because they moved and squeaked.
NOGUCHI: Rios said the students were told they'd get 40 hours of work a week. In fact, they got only 25, but were told to remain on-call at all times. When they complained, Rios says his employer threatened them with deportation and further reduced their work hours.
Earlier this month, Rios, a social communications major, retaliated. He organized his 15-student co-workers and staged a strike.
The State Department says the J-1 visa, or Summer Work Travel Program, started after World War II to promote cultural diplomacy. Following allegations of abuse in recent years, the State Department curtailed the number of students permitted to come to the U.S. to about 90,000 a year. Robin Lerner is a deputy assistant secretary in charge of exchange programs.
ROBIN LERNER: Most of the program is filled with really wonderful placements and the students say what an amazing program they had and that their time in the United States will forever change their lives.
NOGUCHI: Lerner says reports of abuse are taken seriously. Companies licensed to administer the programs are sometimes disqualified. The State Department conducts spot checks of programs - though it didn't visit the Harrisburg McDonald's. Now, the State Department - as well as McDonald's - say they are investigating Rios's claims.
LERNER: We don't want people to come here and have a negative experience, and then leave. I mean, to me that is the polar opposite of why we have this program.
Lerner says J-1 visa holders aren't considered guest workers. But the McDonald's case taps into a broader ongoing debate about foreign temporary workers, over a million of whom come to the U.S. every year on various visas. Agriculture and home health care rely heavily on cheap imported labor. But businesses and unions are at odds over how many guest workers should be allowed, and how much to pay them.
NOGUCHI: Saket Soni is president of the National Guestworker Alliance, a union that helped Rios organize. He says both student and guest workers often fall victim to exploitation.
SAKET SONI: It's a massive problem.
NOGUCHI: Soni says many students - like Rios - go into debt to come here, then are coerced into hard labor.
SONI: The problems with the J-1 visa are part of a bigger picture, which is that guest workers across the country are, firstly, exploited; and secondly, used to undercut local workers and turn jobs into temporary and low wage jobs.
RIOS: Ionut Bilan, is now a 24-year-old student in Romania. In 2011, he helped organize J-1 visa student-workers at a Hershey's Chocolate warehouse. He says his experience in the U.S. doing hard labor taught him some unexpected lessons.
IONUT BILAN: I wanted to stand up for myself. And I wanted to get this situation fixed.
NOGUCHI: Do you feel like justice was done?
BILAN: Yes, because we see these students from the McDonald's campaign. They were inspired by us. I feel really great about it.
NOGUCHI: McDonald's student-worker Jorge Rios also says his stint has turned into a lesson about American society and politics.
RIOS: I think that our real cultural exchange started since we decided to get organized and expose this situation. Because we learned that, although we were going through that, most American people, they don't know this is going on.
NOGUCHI: Rios plans to return to Argentina next week.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.