When Ellie Phillips turned 15, she was excited to land her first job at McDonald’s.
“My mum worked at Maccas when she was a kid, and all I’d been told is that they have great training programs and it looks really good on your resume,” Phillips, who is now a nurse, says.
Seven years later, Ellie is one of almost 20,000 young workers who are part of a multi-million dollar class action against the fast food giant.
The action alleges that McDonald’s ripped off underage workers and includes claims that employees, including those who are pregnant and have known health issues, were forced to work without their breaks.
“[At the start] everyone seemed really friendly and it was pretty good for the first couple of months,” she says.
From early 2014, Ellie spent almost four years as a Team Member at her local store in Nunawading, Victoria, mostly in the McCafé. Ellie soon realised that employees weren’t getting the 10-minute breaks they were legally entitled to when working shifts of four hours or more.
When she questioned her manager, she was told that everyone was allowed to get a drink at any time “if they asked”. If they chose to take their 10-minute break, it would be the only time that they could use the restroom or get a drink.
However, she soon discovered that none of this was true when she was stopped from leaving her work station at all. “Taking a 10-minute break doesn’t disallow you from using the restroom or having a drink of water for the rest of your shift,” she says.
Phillips alerted McDonald’s Australia’s HR department, who she says told her they would share her concerns with the Nunawading store. However, things got worse.
“I then contacted Fair Work multiple times and they told me that they had an agreement with McDonald’s where all disputes would be handled internally,” she said.
So every single time I contacted Fair Work, they just directed me back to HR at McDonald’s, who just directed me back to the store owner. I was just stuck in a circle with absolutely nowhere to go.
No matter how many times Phillips complained, she says the franchise owner did not investigate the issues or provide a sufficient response.
Vicky Antzoulatos, practice leader of Shine Lawyers’ Class Actions, says the McDonald’s Breaks Class Action, which appeared in court for its first case management conference on March 23, has had a monumental response.
Antzoulatos says a “very young and very vulnerable” workforce is being taken advantage of. Potentially hundreds of thousands of workers are eligible to join the class action, with about 80 per cent of McDonald’s workforce under 21.
Restrictions on breaks
Under the McDonald’s Australia Enterprise Agreement 2013 (EBA) and the Fast Food Industry Award 2010, McDonald’s and its franchisees operating restaurants across Australia are required to provide workers a paid 10-minute break for shifts between four and nine hours, and two 10-minute paid breaks for shifts longer than nine hours.
Phillips says workers were not allowed to have a water bottle or leave their work station for any reason.
“We were told that it looks unprofessional to be drinking water in front of customers and had to go out the back of the store to the wash-up room [for a drink] … There were signs in the restaurant that you could be there for no longer than a minute,” she says.
“I was a crew member in the front and where I worked in the café was quite far from the back near the kitchen where the wash-up room was. It was obviously very difficult for me to walk back there and get a drink of water because they wouldn’t allow you to leave your station.”
One day, when Phillips had been working for four hours consecutively while feeling sick, she asked a manager’s permission to use the bathroom.
Her request was initially denied due to cars being in the drive through – which she says was not relevant as she was working in the McCafé – but she believed she heard them eventually agree. She returned within five minutes.
The manager started yelling asking why I’d gone to the bathroom without his permission.
“I said, ‘I’m really sorry. I thought you said I could go quickly. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. Regardless, I needed to use the bathroom; you can’t tell me that I can’t use the restroom’.
“I was given an official written warning for disobeying a manager’s orders and talking back to a manager.”
These instances were the breaking point for Phillips. She says she wrote a letter describing her experiences to the franchise owner, who refused to provide a written response and would only meet in person.
Phillips’s mother also attended the meeting to defend her daughter’s rights – as well as the rights of all employees to be able to use the bathroom, particularly females who may be menstruating.
“The franchise owner got so angry that he turned bright red, started shaking and screaming … It was almost incoherent. He was so angry,” Phillips says.
Nothing came of the meeting and she quit soon after, she says.
More support for workers
Dr Peter Holland, professor of Human Resource Management and director of the Executive MBA at Swinburne University, says more union representation is needed in workplaces so unions have more resources to check up on stores and their employees.
Everyone seems to think that the unions are there to do bad things when they protect employees. Whoever has done a spin on unions has done a great job.
Antzoulatos says the support of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union had been “absolutely instrumental” in filing the class action. The union’s efforts to bring the case to Shine Lawyers, collect information and be a voice for the employees enabled them to investigate.
As of 2020, only 14 per cent of Australia’s working population were part of a union, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The level of membership is continuing to decline. From 1992 to 2016, the proportion of workers in a union in their main job has fallen from 40 per cent to 15 per cent.
With cases like the McDonald’s class action increasing, Holland advises that all workers, particularly young workers, should join a union for representation and an “insurance policy” when government regulation is lacking.
“What other protections have you got? Deregulation means less checks and balances in the system. Who’s checking the wages? Who’s actually coming in and checking the employers doing the right thing?” he says.
Standing up for rights
Phillips remembers being handed a brochure for a union when she first collected her uniform at age 15, though there was no explanation as to what a union was. She didn’t think anything of it at the time. Now a member of a union as a nurse, she thinks they are “a very important thing in standing up for worker’s rights”.
Shine Lawyers says the aim is to get employees compensation to the value of their rest breaks, and possibly loss of amenity. Antzoulatos says the case serves a strong public interest.
“Cases like this are run so that big corporate companies like McDonald’s, which is one of the biggest companies in the world, know that they have to comply with this country’s labour laws and can’t take advantage of their workforce of overwhelmingly young workers,” Antzoulatos says.
It is likely to be years before the class action reaches an outcome. Antzoulatos says a mediation may also take place between all the parties to negotiate an outcome before it goes to trial.
McDonald’s Australia did not respond when contacted for comment.
Ellie says her experience at McDonald’s was “traumatic” and hopes she not only gets compensation, but that the corporation is held accountable.
“It was horrible and I think that being treated that way sort of carries on throughout other jobs you have … They really do just exploit teenagers.”
“McDonald’s is an extremely large corporation and there is absolutely no reason a company in Australia shouldn’t be giving people their entitled breaks, especially when they pride themselves on being a workplace of young people.
And I don’t think that they should be exploiting children.
“I think they’ve got a lot of work to do to do the right thing.”