Earning your first money and gaining work experience so that you no longer have to ask your parents for pocket money – this is probably how many young people imagine their first job. But for Mathilde Simon from Le Havre in France, her first job at McDonald’s turned into a nightmare.

Today, the 23-year-old is on the road as an activist and speaks in the European Parliament about her experiences in a McDonald’s branch in France alongside three other victims of racism, bullying and sexual harassment in branches in Brazil and the USA. Thousands of workers around the world are telling amazingly similar stories.

In 2018, Mathilde started her first job at the company with the big yellow M, which likes to advertise with happy children’s faces, with Happy Meals and a song that says: “No matter your race, your creed, your tribe.”

Mathilde says it was like a family at first, everything seemed friendly. But after a short time the tide turned: “When I needed information, the employee representative said: ‘You can only get it if you touch my genitals.’ When I was working in the kitchen, people would say things like, ‘You still have that nice little butt’.”

Two years earlier, around a dozen employees in the USA had complained to the competent authority about sexual harassment at work. Brazilian Gabriel Milbrat says he was racially abused at McDonald’s in the southern state of Paraná – and while dozing off on the couch in the break room, he noticed his manager performing sexual acts on him above him. These are the experiences that those affected also describe in the EU Parliament.

Maria Noichl, Bavarian SPD MEP, and Manon Aubry, a Left Party MP from France, want these stories to be heard in Brussels too. They want to show that EU laws need to be changed. So far, the parent company McDonald’s has managed in many court cases to dismiss what many accuse the company of: responsibility for the system behind the discrimination and harassment. Instead, lawsuits hold franchisees, directors, and managers accountable.

Over 90 percent of the fast food chain’s restaurants are owned by franchisees. Uniform complaint standards: none. Those who complain are often thrown out or isolated, according to those affected. In some countries, such as the USA and Brazil, it is not possible for employees to organize themselves in unions, and for a long time there were no complaint hotlines, even in France. And so a “culture of looking the other way” has established itself there, as MEP Noichl says. A culture in which “McDonald’s provides the same napkins, the same burgers, the same fries, but not the same rights”.

According to Kristjan Bragason, General Secretary of the European Food Union Confederation (EFFAT), the problem lies in the franchise system. Laws often did not capture this structure. The EU must therefore make improvements, says Bragason. Aubry and Noichl agree. One requirement is a new guideline on “due diligence”, a duty of care – also for multinational corporations.

This is intended to ensure that the parent company has an obligation to all of its restaurants. According to a first draft law, companies should also use contracts to oblige their partners to comply with codes of conduct. The European Parliament is to discuss this in the autumn.

In order not to stand idly by until something happens at EU level, Simon has joined McDroits in France, a collective fighting against all forms of discrimination at McDonald’s: against racism, sexism and homophobia.

With the help of the collective, she and other workers organized a strike at her restaurant. Then she was kicked out. According to her, everyone else who took part in the strike in Le Havre also had to resign. A practice that other employees of the Group in the USA, Brazil and Great Britain also report.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s has announced new global brand standards for this year that will include guidelines on the prevention of sexual harassment. But there are no details for the unions or for us. The group did not respond to several inquiries from DW. On the website, however, there is a note that the parent company helps out the franchisees with optional training.

Mathilde explains that the prevention training in France is structured like a video game in which managers, directors and employees use small multiple-choice scenes to select which form of discrimination is shown here. There is an example of sexism in which a woman prefers to hand something heavy over to her male colleague with the words: “It’s too heavy for me.”

Those affected hope that new laws will force McDonald’s to change. But Noichl knows that it will take years for all the loopholes in EU directives and laws to be closed. Despite this long process, those affected want to continue fighting for their rights until McDonald’s is ready to sit down with them.

Autor: Christina Strunck

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The original of this article “A “culture of looking the other way” at McDonald’s” comes from Deutsche Welle.