Brazil’s fast food slaves


“Once I was holding a tray full of food. When I slipped, my coordinator saw it, took over the tray and let me fall onto the floor saying ‘first the profit and then the worker.”

Kelly has worked for McDonald’s in São Paulo for five months and her story, among others, was reported by the Brazilian news weekly Brasil de Fato.

In Brazil, McDonald’s has more than 650 restaurants and employs more than 50,000 workers. 70 per cent of them are under 21 years old.

In São Paulo, the staff turnover is extremely high and workers complain about outright inhumane treatment, to the point that the trade unions have reported about cases of slave labour.

According to 16-year-old Lúcio, interviewed by Brasil de Fato, “you can never take a break, as soon as you sit down, you get an earful.”

José, 17, says: “You don’t even have time to drink water.” Maria, 16, earned 2.38 Brazilian real per hour (approximately 1.20 US dollars) and remembers: “Once I burnt my hand. I told my supervisor, but she told me to continue working.”

Ruth’s story is even worse. She started working for McDonald’s at the age 17 in December 2010 and became pregnant five months later. Despite the fact that she continued to work, she remained unpaid until August 2011, when her situation finally forced her to leave her job.

On her behalf, the Food and Hospitality Workers Union of Sao Paulo (Sinthoresp) claimed back wages at the labour court.

In its response, McDonald’s justified the denied payment by claiming the employee had presented a savings account at the time of hiring while payments are made only to current accounts, thus transferring all responsibility to the 17-year-old. Ruth now has a current account, but she has not received yet a penny.

The Court is still considering the case. Ruth’s story is not an isolated one.

Sinthoresp has received similar complaints from other pregnant workers. In fact, the complaints are so many that the union sees a clear business strategy.

“Pregnant women are forced to resign through moral harassment and non-payment of wages,” says Rodrigo Rodrigues, a Sinthoresp lawyer.

“This relieves the company from severance pay or the special care of these employees during their pregnancy.”

“For the workers themselves the impact is enormous as they lose the right to unemployment benefits and medical insurance coverage exactly at the time they will need it the most,” says Ethel Machiori, another lawyer at Sinthoresp.

Consequently, in addition to the pay claim, the union requested that the Ministry of Labour investigate whether non-payment of wages and moral harassment are common practice at Golden Arches Ltd, McDonald’s Brazilian franchise.


Law suits

In August 2012, Sinthoresp found 1,790 on-going individual complaints against McDonald’s at the Regional Labour Court in the City of São Paulo only.

This excludes the cases settled in or outside the court and the complaints which were not admissible.

One particular restaurant with a workforce of 230 had 151 law suits running.

Despite this overwhelming evidence and many media reports, however, the Ministry concluded that there was no ground for further investigation.

“The number of complaints of workers could actually be much higher,” says Rodrigues.


Sindifast: as yellow as a cheese slice

“In 2001, fast food chains in Brazil sponsored the creation of a yellow union called Sindifast which they could control.”

“Sindifast is nothing more than a buffer for workers’ complaints and a phony structure to push so called collective bargaining agreements through,” says Rodrigues.

“Since Sindifast is bargaining for the workers at McDonald’s, salaries are on average 35 per cent lower than those of colleagues covered by other collective agreements.”

“Of the 1,790 legal claims against McDonald’s in São Paulo, not one of these complaints was supported by its lawyers.”

In 2008, the magazine Epoca denounced fraudulent schemes of trade union leaders leaching on union dues which are automatically deducted from wages, without any accountability or transparency of expenditure whatsoever.

The magazine presented the inexplicable enrichment of Ataide Francisco de Morais, the father of Sindifast’s president and a trade union leader in his own right, as an extreme example.

On 23 January this year, Sinthoresp submitted an official complaint to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association, accusing the Brazilian government of not doing enough to protect its citizens’ right to join or form a union of their choice and counter McDonald’s union busting practices.

Despite the refusal of the Labour Ministry to investigate irregularities in payment of workers, the union did not give up.

“Not this time,” said Rodrigues. “They have gone too far. McDonalds’ disrespect for Brazil and the Brazilian people is shameless. The company clearly violates the law in multiple instances and yet nothing happens. This impunity must end!”

In 2011, Sinthoresp denounced McDonald’s abusive payment scheme in a video packed with testimonies, hidden camera and other evidence of the slavery working conditions.

Workers are lured by false promises of wages and deceived about the scheme which deducts time in the ‘break room’ from the salaries of workers. Only when there are enough customers, workers are called out of the break room to work, and only then their hours start counting.

Some workers testify that they ended up earning as little as 70 Brazilian reals (approximately 36 US dollars) per month. Workers do not know at the beginning of the month what they will have earned by the end.


Big Macs, low salaries

Given the World Bank’s latest definition of ‘extreme poverty’ as living on less than 1.25 US dollars a day, some of McDonalds’ regular employees in São Paulo have an income below the extreme poverty line.

At the same time, the Brazilian real is one of the world’s most overvalued currencies and prices are skyrocketing.

This year, Brazil ranked fifth in The Economist’s ‘Big Mac Index’. In São Paulo, this iconic burger will cost you as much as 11.25 Brazilian reals (approximately 5.65 US dollars).

Since Sinthoresp launched the video, the union has gained strong political and popular support for its campaign.

“I saw the video of Sinthoresp and I was really shocked by what I saw,” said São Paulo city councillor Gilberto Natalini.

State parliamentarian Carlos Bezerra Jr says: “The problem of slave labour in São Paulo is real and it’s a disgrace to our country that we allow it to exist. McDonald’s is one of the biggest employers in the city.”

If slave labour is found in their restaurants, it affects thousands of young Paulistas and their families. Penal sanctions should be stronger to deter other perpetrators and the victims should be compensated.

“McDonald’s is not exempt from the minimum wage legislation and should align its payment scheme with the law. This exploitation cannot be tolerated,” says Bezerra.

After the Labour Ministry had dismissed the investigation, the union asked the federal police for a criminal investigation into ‘slave-labour’ in McDonald’s, as defined by Article 149 of the Brazilian Penal Code (i.e. the offence of reducing someone to conditions analogous to slavery by forcing them to work or by subjecting them to exhausting work days or degrading working conditions).

Unlike the Labour Ministry, the police found cause for further investigation.

“This in itself is a victory for the workers,” said Rodrigues.

“McDonald’s is a very powerful player in Brazil and it invests a lot in its lobby. Our previous actions had little or no impact. It is encouraging to finally get at least some recognition from an official institution.”

The police investigation into slave-labour in McDonald’s started in October last year. A report will be sent to the federal court.

The roots of slavery

Brazil has a dark past when it comes to slavery.

The enslavement of indigenous peoples and the importation of millions of Africans have shaped the country’s social structure and ethnic landscape.

It was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1888, but since, and especially in the last decade, it has adopted a strong stance on modern forms of slavery.

In 2008, the ILO estimated that there were 40,000 slave labourers in Brazil.

Most slave labour in Brazil is a form of debt bondage found in rural areas in cattle ranching, agriculture, forestry and charcoal production. In cities, slave labour is a well-known problem in textile sweatshops with often undocumented Andean workers.

One initiative is the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour.

Companies signing the Pact commit to refrain from buying from suppliers found using slave labour.

Golden Arches has been a signatory to the Pact since 2009.

Sinthoresp has sent its allegations to the Monitoring Committee of the Pact asking for Golden Arches’ exclusion or its inclusion to the Brazil’s ‘black list’, a public register of companies caught using slave labour.

Meanwhile, following labour law suits in several Brazilian states, on Thursday last week ( 21 March), Golden Arches signed an agreement with the Public Labour Prosecutor (Ministério Público do Trabalho) in Pernambuco.

It commits to regularising the working time scheme throughout Brazil before the end of the year. However, it did not accept to pay the national minimum wage to its workers and insists on paying its workers per hour actually ‘worked’.

Luiz Machado of the International Labour Organisation said the Monitoring Committee of the Slavery Pact had analysed the case to note severe violations of labour law, while concluding that culpability of using slave labour was not proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Following a meeting with Golden Arches in which it outlined its commitment to improve working conditions, they will allow McDonalds to remain in the Pact as long as the Federal Court does not judge otherwise.

The Brazilian Federal Court will indeed judge whether McDonald’s submits its workers to slave labour, as it remains to be seen how McDonald’s commitment to the Public Prosecutor will translate into practice.

It is obvious, however, that McDonald’s has picked itself a fight in Sao Paulo and that Sinthoresp will not give up until working conditions significantly improve.

Offering employment to young workers is one thing; structurally abusing their vulnerability is another.

The upcoming World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016 will put Brazil in the world’s spotlight, and millions of sports fans will go for the familiar food served by international fast food chains.

This gives McDonald’s one year to clean up its act if it wants to avoid this conflict further escalating when the whole world is watching.