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McDonald's Faces Worldwide Reports of Sexual Harassment

For years, workers at McDonald's around the globe have complained of sexual harassment. As part of a push for corporate accountability, the fast-food chain's accusers were invited to speak at the European Parliament.

Anyone's first job should be all about earning money to become more independent while gaining basic workplace skills. But Mathilde S., from Le Havre, in France, told DW that her first job, at McDonald's, turned into a nightmare when she became a victim of sexual harassment.

Now, the 23-year-old Mathilde, who asked that DW not user her full name for the sake of her privacy, has become an activist because of her experiences at McDonald's. Recently, she and three other workers who reported sexual harassment, racism and bullying at McDonald's branches in Brazil and the United States were invited to speak at the European Parliament.

Thousands of other employees of McDonald's branches worldwide tell similar stories. Such harassment is the focus of a broad initiative to make EU laws more socially just.

Managerial sexual harassment

Mathilde started her first job in 2018 at the Golden Arches, which advertises with smiling children's faces and Happy Meals

In the beginning, Mathilde said, it was like a family — everything seemed friendly. After a while, the mood changed. "When I asked for information, the worker's representative would say: 'You only get that if you touch my genitals.' Or when I would work in the kitchen, it would be: 'You have this nice little ass.'" 

Young woman with blond hair presents her red T-shirt with the inscription McDo Sexiste

Mathilde came to activism after experiencing sexual harassment at a French McDonald's

In 2016, employees at several McDonald's branches in the United States had filed complaints about sexual harassment. In 2019, workers at 20 branches accused the company of allowing lewd comments, indecent exposure and groping to continue.

Workers at McDonald's in the southern state of Parana in Brazil have also reported abuse. Gabriel Milbrat traveled to Brussels to speak out about the racism he experienced. He also describes how once when he fell asleep on the couch in the break room, he later realized that his manager had performed sexual acts upon himself above him while he slept.

'Not equal rights'

Maria Noichl and Manon Aubry, members of the European Parliament from Germany and France, respectively, want the EU legislature to hear these stories. 

They want to hold responsible multinational companies that are currently not subject to EU law — including worker protections in the due diligence directive currently being created.

Though there have been high-profile judgments against the owners of individual franchises in the United States, McDonald's Corp. has so far managed to evade being held accountable by the courts for many of the reports of systematic discrimination and harassment.

Young people at a speaker's desk in the European Parliament, all wearing red T-shirts

Former McDonald's workers speak out at a hearing at the European Parliament.

A vast majority of the restaurants belong to franchisees. This is pointed to as one reason uniform complaint mechanisms are lacking for those who do complain, have to leave or are isolated, according to the employees. 

Especially first-time workers do not know they could seek help from trade unions — while in places like Brazil and the US, such unions do not exist.

A "culture of looking the other way" has developed, Noichl said. "McDonald's ensures that there are the same napkins, the same burgers and the same fries," she added, "but not equal rights."

An EU directive

Kristjan Bragason, general secretary of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions, holds that the franchise system is the problem. In such a constellation, laws fail in holding companies accountable, he said.

Bragason and allied members of the European Parliament are seeking to change this in a new EU directive focused on corporate responsibility and due diligence. According to an initial legislative proposal, companies would create contracts with their partners that force every part of the system to adhere to codes of conduct. The European Parliament will discuss the directive in fall.

A woman standing behind a chair, wearing a T-Shirt showing a McDonald's employee

Noichl has called for the due diligence directive to hold multinationals accountable

So long as the situation has not been rectified, Mathilde will continue to campaign in France with McDroits (McRights) — a collective that fights racism, sexism and homophobia.

After the collective helped Mathilde organize a strike with colleagues in Le Havre, she and other participants were forced out of McDonald's, she said. Mathilde said her manager terminated her contract and other workers were pressed into quitting.

Workers from the US, UK and Brazil tell similar stories.

McDonald's remains mum

McDonald's had announced new global brand standards for the beginning of this year. But there are no details on these standards — neither for the trade unions, nor for DW. The company has not responded to multiple inquiries from DW. On the website, the company explains that it does offer optional trainings to franchisees.

Mathilde said awareness trainings in France looked like a video game in which the managers and staff must identify forms of discrimination via multiple-choice questions. For sexism, she says, the example is a woman carrying something heavy but handing it over to her male colleague because of the weight — a far cry from the kinds of things she had to endure.

Now, the affected workers are holding out hope that changes to the law can help hold McDonald's accountable and prevent such things from happening in the future. In the meantime, workers who have experienced harassment have vowed to not stop fighting for their rights until McDonald's sits down and listens to them.

Edited by: Sonya Diehn

Courtesy: DW

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