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On 18 May 2020, an international coalition of trade unions comprising EFFAT, the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), União Geral dos Trabalhadores (Brazil), and the Service Employees International Union (US and Canada) filed a first-of-its-kind complaint alleging systemic sexual harassment at McDonald’s restaurants around the globe.

The complaint, delivered to the Dutch National Contact Point (NCP) responsible for observance of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, sets out the failures of McDonald’s global management to address rampant sexual harassment and gender-based violence at its restaurants in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other countries. It is the first-ever complaint brought to the OECD to take aim at systematic sexual harassment at a multinational company.

The complaint details a pattern of sexual harassment and gender-based violence at McDonald’s in seven countries, ranging from lewd comments to physical assault with the company taking no effective action to remedy or halt the violations. It includes:

  • Dozens of cases in the United States in which workers as young as 16 accused supervisors of serious misconduct, including attempted rape, indecent exposure, groping, and sexual offers. The women said they were ignored, mocked, or punished when they reported it. Some had their hours cut back and others were fired.
  • In December 2019, Brazil’s public prosecutor found “serious indications of practice of moral harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination” in 23 complaints by McDonald’s workers around the country. The complaints included unwanted touching, verbal taunts and other misconduct by supervisors.
  • Among other cases in France, a McDonald’s manager installed a mobile phone camera in the women’s changing room, and secretly filmed young women changing their clothes.

“Gender-based violence and harassment is part of McDonald’s culture,” the complaint argues. “And ‘violence’ is the correct word: groping, touching, forced kissing and other forms of unwanted bodily contact are a form of sexual assault violating the physical integrity of the victim.”

This action was announced at a press call featuring EFFAT General Secretary, Kristjan Bragason, alongside Sue Longley, General Secretary of the IUF, Ricardo Patah, President of União Geral dos Trabalhadores (Brazil), Jamelia Fairley, a McDonald’s worker from Florida, USA, and international labour law expert Lance Compa.

“It is long past time for McDonald’s to act,” Kristjan Bragason said; “workers across the globe have been telling us for years about the widespread sexual harassment in the company – but despite encouragement McDonald’s has totally failed to tackle the problem.

“This complaint, shedding further light on the rampant harassment in its corporate culture, is another big step as part of the worldwide FastFoodGlobal movement empowering and supporting workers to fight for fair pay and decent working conditions in their sector.”

EFFAT and the other trade unions filing the complaint contend that McDonald’s failure to address the sexual harassment crisis in its stores violates the OECD Guidelines’ requirement for corporate due diligence to ensure respect for employees’ human rights, which include protection from gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. The Guidelines incorporate major international human rights instruments, including the UN covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights, which contain guarantees of non-discrimination and health and safety in employment.

Specifically, McDonald’s response to harassment and gender-based violence—defined by its denial of responsibility for the abusive behaviour in franchise stores—violates the provisions of the OECD Guidelines which make it clear that corporations cannot hide behind franchise arrangements when it comes to addressing these issues, according to the complaint.

It also alleges that the company has ignored OECD guidelines by refusing to engage workers and their representatives to address sexual harassment and gender-based harassment in its stores.

The complaint further cites two major investment banks with $1.7 billion in holdings in McDonald’s, APG Asset Management in the Netherlands and Norges Bank in Norway – the latter the eighth largest investor in the burger giant. The OECD Guidelines require due diligence by institutional shareholders in companies to ensure responsible business conduct.

“APG and Norges Bank’s internal and external monitoring systems should have alerted them to the growing problem of sexual harassment in an iconic company in which these two institutional investors had a $1.7 billion stake,” the complaint argues.

In choosing to file the complaint with the relevant Dutch authorities, rather than in the US where McDonald’s is headquartered, the complaint describes the Netherlands as the ‘nerve centre’ of McDonald’s business, both in Europe – where McDonald’s is the continent’s largest fast-food company, with more than $20 billion in annual revenue – and for key worldwide operations. It argues that Netherlands-based entities control financing, franchisee relations, real estate, commercial services, logistics and other functions integral to McDonald’s operations on the continent. The Netherlands is also the home of one of the two institutional investors joined to the complaint.

It is hoped that a mediation process in the Netherlands could lead to an agreement and a template for McDonald’s operations around the world. In the complaint, the organisations seek a role for workers to bring their own experiences and ideas to the table to help shape policies to combat harassment and gender-based violence. This also echoes EFFAT’s Zero Tolerance Recommendations on sexual harassment and violence at the workplace, published in late 2019, the action points of which EFFAT continues to pursue at the European level.

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