IUF Support for Global McDonald’s Protests, Genève 26 ottobre 2000

IUF Support for Global McDonald's Protests

From October 15 trade unions and NGOs around the globe have been organizing
demonstrations and other actions to highlight abusive labour practices by
the transnational restaurant chain McDonald's. The protests will continue
through the end of October. The latest round of actions targeting the
hamburger giant stem from the disclosure by the Hong Kong Christian
Industrial Committee (HKCIC, a labour rights group which works closely with
the IUF-affiliates in the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions) of
massive labour rights violations at City Toys in Shenzhen. City Toys
manufactures toys under contract for Simon Marketing, a marketing and
sourcing company from which McDonald's procures many of the billions of
toys which form an integral part of its global promotional strategy.

At the Shenzhen plant, the HKCIC found 2,000 workers, most of them young
women, working unlimited hours at a fixed daily wage of less than USD 3 per
day. Unpaid overtime - frequently stretching into the early hours of the
morning - was typical of working conditions for these workers without
contracts or insurance. To compensate for the high employee turnover, the
factory had recruited young workers under 16 years of age.

When the news was published in the Hong Kong Morning Post on August 27,
McDonald's first denied the allegations by asserting that it had a
corporate "Code of Conduct" and a regular system of independent monitoring
of that code. City Toys responded by dismissing the under-age employees and
attempting to prevent them from communicating with investigators. When a
company audit confirmed the truth of the HKCIC/Morning Post report,
McDonald's walked away from the problem by dropping the supplier - and the
children.

In a letter to McDonald's chairman and CEO Jack Greenberg on September 8,
the IUF denounced this irresponsible conduct, demanding that the child
workers be given "attention and support" and pointing out that "simply
switching orders to another contractor " would not resolve the issue of the
company's wider responsibility" (the IUF/McDonald's correspondence is
available here). McDonald's responded by stating that the company "fully
supports our suppliers' decision to halt all production of toys for
McDonald's at the City Toys facility in China" and intoning: "We take our
Code of Conduct seriously, as our actions demonstrate."

Three conclusions may be drawn from this affair. First, abusive labour
practices at toy companies in South China should surprise no one. City Toys
has a long history of employee abuse, including documented reports of
savage beatings by security guards in Shenzhen published two years ago. A
wider investigation by the HKCIC of ten McDonald's toy contractors in China
confirmed that low wages, forced overtime, poor health and safety
conditions on the factory floor, substandard living conditions, the
employment of workers without contracts and a total lack of accounting
transparency as regards the calculation of wages are the rule rather than
the exception. It goes without saying that workers in China are prohibited
from organizing unions, a well-known fact which seems to have eluded only
those who write advertising copy for the code monitoring industry.

Second, the monitoring procedure - for which McDonald's pays the
Swiss-based auditing firm SGS - at McDonald's is of a piece with the other
monitoring schemes which have become an established component of corporate
public relations exercises. In the absence of independent trade union
organization and explicit recognition of this right by employers, Codes of
Conduct are meaningless. Of the ten factories in the HKCIC survey, 4 of
them drilled workers and falsified documents to pass the monitoring
exercise. SGS, a leader in the code monitoring sector, did not have to look
very hard to see evidence of massive labour abuses, yet its auditors saw
nothing. PricewaterhouseCoopers, another leading "global contractor
compliance" firm, has distinguished itself by overlooking workweeks of up
to 79 hours documented on company time cards and workplace carcinogens at
Asian garment factories it regularly audits.

Third, contracting out toy production through a complex system of
intermediaries - like the franchise system McDonald's has used so
successfully in its restaurant operations - has been systematically
employed to deflect public criticism, defeat union organizing efforts, and
evade corporate responsibility at international level. With a few notable
exceptions, the IUF and its affiliates' know McDonald's as a fervently
anti-union company which views trade unions as the number one threat to the
corporate interest. In the last two years alone, we have seen the company
deploy enormous financial resources to bust unions in Canada and Russia.
When all else failed, McDonald's closed franchises rather than recognize
workers' legally-upheld right to form a union. In Germany the company
allied with a notorious yellow union with a National Socialist past to
place employer-backed candidates on the workers side of the bi-partite body
which administers the accident fund for workers in the food and restaurant
sector. Union organizing efforts in Indonesia have been thwarted by sacking
leaders and activists. In short, McDonald's has internationalized US-style
employment practices and union-busting techniques, with negative
consequences for workers in the catering sector and society as a whole.

Shameless exploitation of workers in China to produce children's toys -
facilitated by the Chinese state's police powers and fundamental opposition
to trade union rights - is but a part of the larger problem. McDonald's, if
franchise restaurants are considered together with directly-owned units, is
today one of the world's largest employers. Yet the vast majority of those
who wear the McDonald's uniform are systematically denied the fundamental
human right to organize and bargain collectively. Change will come to
McDonald's when, as a global employer with global responsibilities, it
recognizes this right throughout its international operations. No Code of
Conduct can substitute for union recognition on a world-wide scale.