Fast-food workers and union leaders on Wednesday stormed one of McDonald’s busiest restaurants in Sao Paulo and held rallies in front of its restaurants in Brasília, Bahia, Goiás and Amazonas. The protesters chanted, “Respect Brazilian laws” and carried placards that read, “Sem direitos não é legal” (No rights is not cool).
The decision to protest the McDonald’s store in Sao Paulo was born out of a decades-long struggle by the two largest labor organizations in Brazil — Contratuh (Confederaçao Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Turismo e Hospitalidade) and Nova Central, which represent hundreds of thousands of fast-food workers. Their goal is simple: To make McDonald’s obey Brazilian law.
With more than 50,000 employees in Brazil, McDonald’s is one of the largest employers in the country. It dominates the fast-food sector and for decades has systematically flouted basic Brazilian labor laws. The violations include paying workers below the minimum wage; denying workers overtime pay and breaks; timesheet fraud; forcing employees to work multiple jobs for which they were not hired, trained or compensated; denying employees regular work schedules, vacation time and severance pay; and forcing employees to work in hazardous conditions without proper protective gear.
It has thumbed its nose at the country’s laws at every turn, even ignoring a nationwide decree promising to clean up its act, which McDonald’s signed in 2013 in the wake of a civil lawsuit filed by the Pernambuco state Ministry of Labor. Still, the company continues to violate Brazilian labor law.
When McDonald’s breaks the law, it puts companies that follow the rules at a disadvantage. Workers and the economy lose. That is why my two organizations, Nova Central and Contratuh, joined six other labor organizations in Brazil to file a lawsuit charging McDonald’s with mistreating workers and putting law-abiding businesses at a disadvantage through its anti-competitive behavior known as social dumping. The protesters are asking the courts to prevent McDonald’s from opening more outlets unless it follows Brazilian laws, starts paying the minimum wage, stops employing underage workers and stops flouting overtime rules.
Sadly, Brazilian workers are not alone. With 1.9 million employees in 119 countries, McDonald’s employment practices hurt millions of workers around the world. The company is a leader in the development of a low-wage and precarious employment model, which include wage theft, child labor, low wages, no guaranteed hours, erratic and abusive schedules, discrimination, union busting and dangerous conditions.
From the United Kingdom, where workers get no guaranteed hours, to the United States, where workers are routinely burned, and Brazil, where wages for many hover just above $1 an hour, McDonald’s is driving down standards for workers. Its practices also burden taxpayers. For example, low wages at McDonald’s force its U.S. employees to rely on $1.2 billion a year in public assistance. Last month the European Union’s directorate of competition launched a preliminary investigation into McDonald’s alleged avoidance of more than 1 billion euros in taxes by routing royalty payments through a small subsidiary in Luxembourg.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Nova Central and Contratuh launched the Sem Direitos Não é Legal movement earlier this year in partnership with the U.S.-based Service Employees International Union. And around the world, workers are coming together to reaffirm that McDonald’s treatment of its workers is not acceptable. The movement for higher pay and better treatment, which started in the United States in 2012, has spread to 40 countries on six continents.
In addition to strikes in 230 U.S. cities, there were protests in Brazil, Scotland and Belgium on Wednesday. Workers went on strike in Italy and New Zealand and protested in France. They demonstrated in 30 prefectures in Japan and four cities in Germany. Workers are calling on McDonald’s to end zero-hour contracts (in which workers receive no guaranteed hours), pay its employees fair wages and abide by local laws everywhere it operates.
McDonald’s has an opportunity — as well as a responsibility — to create quality jobs that pay living wages. Workers and union leaders have a responsibility to continue protesting until the company starts treating workers fairly.