It’s no easy task to stand up against one of the world’s largest fast food chains, especially without adequate legal safeguards. Food and farm workers in McDonald’s wide-reaching supply chain are bravely coming forward with their stories of abuse and retaliation. Our friends at the Food Chain Workers Alliance brought together a great panel this week to put the spotlight on McDonald’s bad practices and the struggle to hold them accountable.
Panelists Julian Camacho, a former employee at Taylor Farms (a major McDonald’s supplier), and Luis Chiliquinga, a McDonald’s employee since 2013, witnessed and experienced horrific safety violations and reported them to their superiors. In addition, they both initiated unionization efforts, and unfortunately, faced retaliation for doing so.
The Food Integrity Campaign has worked closely with food worker unions, including Teamsters and the United Food & Commercial Workers, whose members attest to the protection they have under union contracts (comparable to whistleblower protections) that enable them to stop worker or food safety threats without worrying about losing their job. Anti-union efforts against these workers are essentially moves against food integrity and truth-telling. Camacho and Chiliquinga’s accounts unveil McDonald’s attempts to silence workers and their concerns.
Camacho worked for four years at Taylor Farms in Tracy, California, where he witnessed injustices committed against the majority immigrant 900-person workforce. “People work 17-hour days without a break, seven days in a row without overtime,” he explained. Camacho described a chemical spill incident where workers complained they couldn’t breathe, but supervisors told them to continue working, that everything was fine. Only after workers started vomiting blood and passing out did Taylor Farms managers call for an evacuation.
Workers are afraid to speak up about these conditions because Taylor Farms uses a temp agency to staff its factories, so workers are disposable. “People are afraid because they are immigrants and think they don’t have any rights,” said Camacho. “There is still discrimination and harassment at the plant.” Camacho experienced this firsthand when he was fired after starting to unionize the plant with Teamsters Local 601.
McDonald’s came to investigate Taylor Farms, but instead of demanding changes from the farm, McDonald’s simply decided to drop their contract. “McDonald’s didn’t support or fight for us workers,” said Camacho.
Luis Chiliquinga not only experienced McDonald’s lack of care for worker conditions, but also retaliation from the $92.5 billion company. “If you poke the monster, it starts moving,” said Chiliquinga, who organized worker strikes for better wages and conditions. He is an American citizen and immigrant from Ecuador, who works at the McDonald’s in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “It only took a little bit of time to understand the low wages and bad working conditions there,” said Chiliquinga. He described how workers regularly burn their skin, how people would scream when 300-degree oil splattered into their eyes, and there were no functioning eye wash stations or first aid kits to treat them. “No one at McDonald’s was going to solve this, they remain indifferent to the suffering of workers.” So they started to organize.
As is common among many big corporations who feel threatened by whistleblowers, McDonald’s retaliated against Chiliquinga and his co-workers. “They started to create new rules, like we could not drink water between 11am and 3pm,” said Chiliquinga. “Then they sent 25 supervisors to monitor a shift of 20 workers.” Chiliquinga joked that he felt important as he flipped hamburgers because two supervisors were standing behind him and watching. McDonald’s then reduced workers’ hours. Chiliquinga went from working 55-65 hours per week to two days per week, four hours per day. “There was no way for me to make complaints without the company knowing,” he explained, which left him feeling unsafe and the target of retaliation. Although Chiliquinga presented evidence of retaliation and persecution to the National Labor Relations Board, “the representative didn’t feel that we had enough evidence.”
As these panelists revealed, the hands that operate our food system are suffering from low wages and unsafe working conditions. They need to be able to bring these abuses to light without becoming targets for retaliation. Wilma Liebman from the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations congratulated the panel on changing the conversation around collective action. She explained, “We won’t have better labor law without strong labor power.”
As the emerging worker movement gains power, they also need to push for stronger whistleblower protections from corporations like McDonald’s. The company may have scheduled 700 store closings this year, but it remains one of the top players in the industry. Empowering workers with whistleblower protections is the best way to ensure integrity in the food supply. Only then can we truly have a happy meal.
Roxanne Darrow is Investigation and Outreach Coordinator for the Food Integrity Campaign.