Opinion Former Article

BFAWU: Is a contract and a wage really too much to ask of fast food employers?

If fast food companies can afford to pay CEOs £8.45 million, they can pay their staff a living way

by Ian Hodson, national president, Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Since the launch of the Fast Food Rights campaign at the beginning of the year, it has become clear that many who work in that industry welcome this initiative. A number of them have contacted us to tell us their stories and give us a valuable insight into the cultures and practices within these highly profitable organisations. For instance, one employee told us that there was a sign in their fast food restaurant informing staff that they must smile at all times. Commenting on this, he stated that the sign was initially regarded as a bit of a joke rather than a threat, until one of his colleagues was disciplined and later dismissed for the crime of not smiling.

Another worker spoke about having to work twelve hour shifts with one twenty minute break, despite being eight months pregnant. She had a note from her midwife stating that she needed extra rest periods, but the company ignored it. This lady sometimes worked from 12.00 noon until midnight and started the next day at 6.00am; a clear breach of working time regulations and duty of care under health and safety law. Eventually, the staff got together and threatened to join a trade union. They were told that a union would never be recognised, and they would be instantly dismissed if they joined one. This is contrary to the letters they have sent to the BFAWU, telling us that their employees are free to join a trade union and they have no issue with them doing so.

Having personally taken part in the first weeks of the campaign, I must say that from what I witnessed, McDonald's have a major issue with their staff joining a trade union. They made sure that employees couldn’t take any recruitment materials from us and brought in scores of managers to stop anyone from discussing their employment rights with us. Despite posing no threat to anyone, McDonald's managers also telephoned the Police, followed us down London’s Oxford Street and for reasons known only to them, took photographs of us. That behaviour flew in the face of the supposed ‘staff friendly’, ‘opportunity for all’ ideology they boasted of in their correspondence with us.  

Recently, it was highlighted how these multi-billion pound profitable companies send texts to between twenty and fifty young workers at a time, making them race into work to cover shifts. However, only the first one who arrives will get the hours; the rest go home with no pay. They aren’t even reimbursed for travel expenses. This type of practice doesn’t just end there. Others working for fast food companies have told us that they have had work taken from them as punishment for turning down a request to do hours at short notice. They went on to tell us that should you have to turn down hours as a result of having a medical appointment, they cancel other hours of work to ‘teach you a lesson’.

The cultures and norms that we have been informed of that exist within these companies do not constitute ‘employment’ of any description. It is purely and simply exploitation and it needs to be both outlawed and replaced by proper contracts of employment that include guaranteed hours and pay. It is absolutely nonsensical that the taxpayer should foot the bill for the shortfall in wages that these massive companies have the ability to, but can’t be bothered to pay, for no other reason than greed.

How can the government say that it’s all ‘for hardworking people’ and complain about the cost of benefits whilst turning a blind eye to this? To add further insult to injury, many of these huge companies have found creative ways to avoid paying tax. If fast food companies can afford to pay CEOs £8.45 million, I'm fairly sure that they can find the money to pay their front line staff a living wage at the very least, whilst paying taxes to this country. Is it really too much to ask that fast-food workers should be given regular hours and fair pay, so that they can contribute by paying tax and national insurance that could not only be ploughed into our economy, but would also save the taxpayer a fortune in benefits payments? Of course it isn’t, and the fact that these companies are allowed to engage in this kind of behaviour betrays a wider agenda at play in my opinion.

Events highlighting the conduct of massive fast-food companies and the plight of their employees have been taking place across the UK and have been well attended, leading to a number of workers making enquiries about union membership and getting organised. Further action is planned with new targets identified and we will continue to raise these important employment issues on high streets up and down the country. We will continue to bring directly into focus, the shameful practices of these highly profitable businesses. Hopefully, they will feel ashamed and do the right thing, but I won’t hold my breath.

If they think this is just a short term issue that will eventually fizzle out, I can confirm that not only is the Hungry For Justice/Fast-Food Rights campaign gathering both momentum and support publicly and politically, we have already put plans, activities and events in place that will cover the next two years. We are already organising public meetings that will discuss the shocking practices within fast-food companies and we will hear more stories about the way workers are treated in this industry. We are looking at widening the campaign even further, with a number of new organisations lending their support and arranging events in towns and cities across the country. We will also be working with the people from the ‘USA 15’ campaign with plans already underway for a joint programme of action. We are hoping that this growing awareness will start to spread across Europe with sections of the French media already intending to highlight the use of zero hours contracts in the UK food industry.

The message to these multi-billion pound fat cats is simple; treat your workers fairly, give them terms and conditions that they can be proud of, end zero hour contracts and end your involvement in ‘workfare’. Otherwise, you’ll be hearing from us very, very soon.

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