Brazil is home to more McDonald’s than any other place in the Western Hemisphere, aside from the US. The federal police in Brazil recently announced that they have been investigating McDonald’s for the past several months over allegations that its workers have been laboring in “slave-like conditions.” The case was announced last week, in response to a 17-year-old girl’s complaint, filed in October, that she had worked at a São Paulo McDonald’s for eight months without receiving any pay.
The girl testified that when she started at McDonald’s, she had been told to open a bank account to receive her salary via direct deposit. When she gave them her savings-account information, the manager told her to open a checking account. The girl opened the checking account but claims that management continued to make excuses not to pay her. Her mother, Maria das Graças Nonato, initially thought her daughter was lying to her about her earnings but eventually took her to meet with union representatives, who brought the allegations to the federal police.
Antonio Carlos Lacerda, a lawyer from the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, says, “The police are focusing on this individual case because the girl has agreed to testify, but this is not an isolated incident. We know of many other similar situations, and this is why they have decided to step in. I believe that when the investigation is concluded, they will prove that there is a systematic pattern of this kind of behavior through the entire McDonald’s system.”
This incident is one more setback for McDonald’s in a long line of labor issues in Brazil. Last year, there were 1,790 cases against the company in the state of São Paulo alone for claims ranging from firing pregnant women in order to avoid paying maternity leave, to overtime violations and failure to pay the minimum wage. According to the news magazine Brasil de Fato, one of the reasons that McDonald’s has gotten away with so many labor crimes is that they focus on hiring teenagers from poor backgrounds who have little job experience and don’t know their rights.
McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in South America in Rio de Janeiro in 1979. As the chain has expanded, so have the number of labor cases. McDonald’s has been repeatedly accused of failing to provide healthy food to employees. In accordance with Brazilian law, employers have to provide a “healthy and varied” lunch for their workers. This is commonly accomplished through distribution of meal tickets that can be redeemed at restaurants and grocery stores, giving employees the optionof bringing their own lunch or eating out. Last year a state labor court in Pernambuco ordered the company to pay $15 million in damages to employees who were not allowed to bring their own lunch to work and were obligated to eat McDonald’s. In São Paulo a pregnant employee who was ordered by her doctor to stop eating McDonald’s food filed charges when her employer refused to cooperate.
Michelle Miranda, a resident of Jardim Fontalis favela on the outskirts of São Paulo, was hired at McDonald’s after graduating high school. “McDonald’s is a basic example of the shitty way that these big corporations treat their employees,” she says. “They hire poor people and don’t give them clear job descriptions. The worker comes in and is trained to do all the work in the place for the same pay. I worked everywhere: made sandwiches, fried burgers, worked the cash register, took orders, cleaned the bathrooms, mopped the floor, stocked food, and always made the same $1.15 an hour. I left because after four months, I still wasn’t making minimum wage.”
Last year, the union and McDonald’s made a collective agreement in São Paulo, where the cost of living is higher than in New York, to establish fixed shifts and clear job descriptions for its employees and set a minimum salary of $384.63 for a 44-hour work week. Although McDonald’s is not known for its high wages in the US, in Brazil, the company appears to have a systemic pattern of flaunting labor laws to keep operating expenses down, despite charging 35 percent more for a Big Mac.