‘If You Want Work, You Keep Quiet’: Fast Food Workers on the COVID Frontline

While diners eat their McDonald's and KFC takeaways in safety, the people making their food are working while displaying symptoms, and discouraged from complying with isolation rules.
February 22, 2021, 10:31am
Fried chicken. Photo by Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Fried chicken. Photo: Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A year into the pandemic, fast food workers in the UK are exhausted and continue to worry about their exposure to COVID-19. With restaurants and pubs closed for many months now, takeaways and food delivery platforms like Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat are making record profits. Meanwhile, workers suffer at the frontline.

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These workers tell of a lack of clear information about managing coronavirus risk, deteriorating cleaning practices and difficult working conditions. Outbreaks of coronavirus are common, and staff who contract the virus sometimes continue to work.

VICE World News has previously reported on low-paid workers such as cleaning staff having little choice but to attend workplaces they believe are unsafe. Workers in the fast food sector face similar problems.

Often employed on zero hours or “flexible” contracts, these workers feel unable to demand improvements from their workplace as they fear that troublemakers will be punished. Ultimately, the workers say that they have been forgotten about.

“Throughout the whole thing, they haven’t given us a pay rise or a bonus,” says one worker at KFC, which does not use zero hours contracts in its restaurants. “We’ve just been given a little metal pin badge with a picture of a chicken that says ‘High Fryin’ Heroes 2020.’ I didn’t risk my life for a badge,” the worker, who wanted to remain anonymous, added.

In August, as the UK emerged from the first wave of the pandemic, Chancellor Rishi Sunak launched “Eat Out to Help Out”, a subsidy scheme to encourage customers into restaurants and help the ailing hospitality industry. The £10 meal voucher was hailed as a success for pubs and restaurants at the time, but it came at a cost: a study by Warwick University estimated that between 8 and 17 percent of the newly detected COVID-19 infection clusters can be attributed to dining out.

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Encouraging people to eat out also caused a surge in demand at fast food chains, which staff had to deal with. “When we reopened in summer, it was absolutely mental,” says Jack, who has worked at a KFC in northern England for three years, and is now a team leader. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions at work.

“When you work in fast food, it's all about time limits,” Jack says. “It's constant, back-to-back working in a small, crowded environment. Even now, I'll go whole shifts without getting the opportunity to wash my hands.”

He continues: “Even when people are self-isolating and we’re severely understaffed, they won’t shut the store. They’ll modify things and push everything to the limit, even if that endangers our health.”

Working conditions are difficult at other fast food chains, too. Last year, Environment Secretary George Eustice claimed that a “McDonald’s drive-through is made for social distancing”. While this may be true for customers who can collect orders from the safety of their cars, workers must prepare the food in cramped conditions.

An employee at a McDonald’s in Kent says: “In drive-through kiosks, we take orders and prepare food and drinks in a tiny, enclosed workspace. It’s definitely much less safe for staff.”

According to the numerous KFC and McDonald’s employees who spoke to VICE World News, these are typical descriptions of the way in which fast food restaurants have been operating during the coronavirus pandemic. 

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But as workers suffer, the fast food chains and delivery platforms have seen their profits rise. In October, KFC announced plans to hire a further 5,400 employees across the UK and Ireland, on top of the 4,300 roles it had created since March due to a rise in demand for takeaway meals. McDonald’s paid out a record $3.7 billion in dividends in 2020 – the highest in its history. While the chain does not publish UK financial results, it was well placed to take advantage of the takeaway boom after announcing a partnership with Just Eat in early 2020. The Netherlands based takeaway app reported that delivery orders in the UK were up 400 percent in the final quarter of 2020, compared to the same period of 2019.

Although safety measures and enhanced cleaning practices were enforced in the early stages of the pandemic, workers at KFC and McDonald’s say that these standards have since deteriorated. There is little time for cleaning, and social distancing and mask-wearing are inconsistently enforced. Outbreaks of COVID-19 among staff are commonplace.

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At the KFC, where 21-year-old Dean works, there have been seven confirmed cases of coronavirus in the workforce. Dean also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“When my friend and I caught COVID, they didn’t do a deep clean of the store,” he says. “No one else was told. We only find out that somebody we worked with has had it through rumours.”

Dean and other fast food staff interviewed by VICE World News said that they had not received clear information on self-isolation procedures in their workplace. Employees displaying symptoms have been allowed to come in to work, they said, while others have been discouraged from complying with the ten-day isolation rule.

“Quite a few people have come in feeling poorly, but haven't gone and got a test because they haven't got a cough,” Dean says. “Some of the managers will see people with symptoms but let them continue working.”

According to the employee at a McDonald’s in Kent – the epicentre of the new variant outbreak – more than half of the staff were self-isolating in the run-up to Christmas.

“It was chaotic,” he says. “I remember there was a time when someone actually had COVID, and they were timetabled to come in before their isolation period was up. They came to work and got sent home because they were still feeling ill. Everyone just carried on as if it was normal.”

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Chefs, food process operatives and restaurant and catering managers are among the occupations with the highest coronavirus death rate, according to ONS data. One McDonald's employee told VICE World News that the manager of her franchise died of coronavirus just weeks after she raised concerns with him over staff safety.  

Despite this increased risk, staff at McDonald’s are typically asked to disable the NHS Track and Trace app while at work. According to an email sent to McDonald’s employees, seen by VICE World News, this is “to ensure that the contact tracing remains accurate and does not give misleading information that might suggest you have had close contact with a number of employees while [their phones] are all close together in the lockers.”

Government guidelines recommend pausing the Test and Trace app when phones are being stored in a communal area. However, Dean believes that there should be a way for staff to keep their phones with them, in order for the app to work. “We’re particularly at risk of catching it from customers,” he says. “They very, very rarely wear masks.”

Another McDonald’s employee believes the app policy is in place “to minimise proof of contact”. According to the 52-year-old, bosses decide whether staff should self-isolate based on the assumption that workplace social distancing rules are consistently followed, but they are not. “The lines are drawn on the floor and stuff. But it’s not something you can realistically do,” he says.

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The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), which helped organise the first strike of McDonald's workers in the UK in 2017, has been monitoring working conditions in fast food restaurants during the pandemic.

A BFAWU said: “When workers raise issues of health and safety, they do so from a working culture where their voices are not regularly heard or listened to. The imbalance of power which workers face has also meant that workers who are either clinically vulnerable themselves (or in a household with someone who is) have struggled to have requests for furlough granted.”

Often employed on zero-hours contracts and entitled to only £95.85 a week in statutory sick pay, many fast food workers are afraid to raise concerns with managers. All the workers interviewed in this piece chose to remain anonymous, for fear that they would be punished.

“Troublemakers just won’t get the hours,” one McDonald’s employee says. “If you want work, you keep quiet.”

The spokesperson for BFAWU emphasised the economic disparities between fast food employers and their staff: “Some stores had their biggest ever takings last August with Eat Out to Help Out.” Research by the BFAWU also shows that McDonald’s met with UK government ministers 15 times between March and June 2020.

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Despite their unsafe working conditions, many fast food employees feel that they have no choice but to carry on. “People don’t feel safe working there, but have to pay the bills. It’s either that, or the assault course of Universal Credit,” says Jack.

A KFC spokesperson said: “The safety of our team members and guests is our top priority, so we take it seriously and we’re always willing to discuss any concerns our team members have. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been in touch with our team members regularly, making sure every decision we take is with their safety at heart. If we can’t operate responsibly, we won’t at all.” 

They continued: “We follow all government guidelines and work closely with EHOs to make sure we have the right procedures and training in place. We’re confident in these measures, which include Perspex screens, PPE and increased hand-washing and sanitising. We also have designated zones in our kitchens to help teams maintain social distancing. For any confirmed cases of coronavirus amongst our team members, we follow all the recommended guidance – which includes deep cleaning and compulsory self-isolation for anyone who displays symptoms or who has been contacted by Test and Trace.”

“For any concerns, KFC team members might have about safety working in our restaurants, we would like them to get in touch with us on our anonymous telephone line so we can urgently look into it.”

A McDonald’s spokesperson said: “We’re very disappointed to hear this feedback as we have worked incredibly hard with our franchisees to ensure that robust safety measures are in place to help protect our people and customers. However, without any specific information around these complaints we are unable to investigate further. We have a number of channels available for our employees to raise concerns and we strongly encourage everyone to use these. A safe workplace for our people and our customers is critically important to us and we have continually introduced new safety measures and procedures to help keep our employees safe at work since the start of the pandemic.”

23/02/2021: UPDATE: This story has been updated with a revised statement from KFC, and to clarify that KFC restaurants do not use zero hours contracts.