Everyone’s first job should be all about making money to become more independent while acquiring basic skills in the workplace. But Mathilde S., of Le Havre, France, told TBEN that her first job, at McDonald’s, turned into a nightmare when she was the victim of sexual harassment.
Now, 23-year-old Mathilde, who asked TBEN not to use her full name for privacy reasons, has become an activist because of her experiences at McDonald’s. She and three other employees who reported sexual harassment, racism and bullying at McDonald’s locations in Brazil and the United States were recently invited to speak at the European Parliament.
Thousands of other employees at McDonald’s locations around the world tell similar stories. Such harassment is the focus of a broad initiative to make EU laws more socially just.
Executive Sexual Harassment
Mathilde started her first job in 2018 at the Gouden Bogen, which advertises 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 employee’s representative said, ‘You only get that if you touch my genitals.’ Or if I worked in the kitchen it would be, ‘You’ve got this cute little ass.'”
Mathilde turned to activism after sexual harassment at a French McDonald’s
In 2016, employees at several McDonald’s locations in the United States filed complaints of sexual harassment. In 2019, employees at 20 locations accused the company of allowing lewd comments, indecent exposure and groping.
McDonald’s employees in Brazil’s southern state of Parana 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 cafeteria, he later realized that his manager upstairs had engaged in sexual acts while he was asleep.
‘No equal rights’
Maria Noichl and Manon Aubry, MEPs from Germany and France respectively, want the EU legislator to hear these stories.
They want to hold accountable multinational companies that are not currently subject to EU law – including the protection of workers in the due diligence directive that is currently being drafted.
While high-profile judgments have been handed down against the owners of individual franchisees in the United States, McDonald’s Corp. managed to avoid holding the courts accountable for many of the reports of systematic discrimination and harassment.
Former McDonald’s employees speak out at a hearing in the European Parliament.
A vast majority of restaurants are owned by franchisees. This has been cited as one of the reasons that uniform grievance mechanisms are lacking for those who do complain, have to leave or are isolated, the employees said.
Newcomers in particular do not know that they can seek help from unions, while such unions do not exist in countries such as Brazil and the US.
A “looking the other way” culture has developed, Noichl said. “McDonald’s makes sure 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, says the franchise system is the problem. In such a constellation, laws fail to hold companies accountable, he said.
Bragason and related MEPs are trying to change this in a new EU directive focused on corporate social responsibility and due diligence. Under a first bill, companies would enter into contracts with their partners that would force every part of the system to adhere to codes of conduct. The European Parliament will discuss the directive in the autumn.
Noichl has called for the due diligence directive to hold multinationals to account
Until the situation is resolved, Mathilde will continue to campaign in France with McDroits (McRights), a collective fighting racism, sexism and homophobia.
After the collective helped Mathilde organize a strike with colleagues in Le Havre, she and other participants were forced to leave McDonald’s, she said. Mathilde said her manager had canceled her contract and other employees were being pressured to quit.
Workers from the US, UK and Brazil tell similar stories.
McDonald’s stays mommy
McDonald’s had announced new global brand standards early this year. But there are no details about these standards – neither for the unions nor for TBEN. The company did not respond to multiple inquiries from TBEN. On its website, the company explains that it does offer optional training to franchisees.
Mathilde said that awareness training in France was like a video game in which managers and staff have to identify forms of discrimination through multiple choice questions. As for sexism, she says, the example is a woman carrying something heavy, but handing it over to her male colleague because of the weight — unlike the kind of things she had to endure.
Now, affected employees are hoping that legislative changes can hold McDonald’s accountable and prevent such things from happening in the future. Meanwhile, workers who have faced harassment have vowed not to stop fighting for their rights until McDonald’s sits down and listens to them.
Edited by: Sonya Diehn