McDonald's during Covid19: employees on the front line

The Covid19 pandemic has hit the most vulnerable workers hard, and the example of McDonald’s confirms this. On March 16, when the government announced the closure of restaurants, bars and cafes, the major fast-food chains managed to negotiate a waiver: home delivery and takeaways would still be possible. In the days that followed, and given the magnitude of the pandemic, the vast majority of McDonald’s restaurants decided to stop all their activities. However, this is not the case for a franchisee in the west of France, which will keep 12 of its 22 restaurants open. For the ReAct, it is the beginning of two months of mobilization alongside these employees, who will serve as guinea pigs for the McDonald’s tests preparing the reopening of the other restaurants.

The case of the Simmenauer franchisee: employee-es guinea pigs

Bernard Simmenauer owns 22 restaurants in the west of France, in the vicinity of Tours. He is a powerful figure locally, surrounded by a network of politicians who support him. At the beginning of the pandemic, he decided not to close his restaurants: 12 would remain open without interruption.


 “The safety rules, they do everything to be respected but it is impossible, especially in the kitchen. There can be almost 15 to 20 people in the restaurant with too much contact.”

Photo of kitchens in one of Simmenauer’s restaurants

Very quickly, we come into contact with employees of these restaurants, who face a catastrophic situation. From the point of view of safety and hygiene first: employees are worried and feel in danger, because safety distances are impossible to respect, they often have to work without a mask or with simple shacks, do not have time to wash their hands …

And let’s talk about “masks” … these are masks that we make ourselves using 2 sheets of sopalin and staples… Mr. Simmenauer came to bring us elastics to make new ones but clearly they are of no use. »

Faced with working conditions that do not guarantee their safety, and in the face of the fear of contaminating their loved ones or even customers, many employees try to exercise their right to withdraw. Penalty lost because in many cases, the management of Simmenauer restaurants assures them that “the right of withdrawal does not exist”: messages are sent to all employees to tell them that if they do not show up for work, unjustified absences will be charged to them; they are made aware that those who exercised their right to withdraw when awarding promotions will be remembered.

“My manager at the beginning of the confinement said, “I can see who keeps coming or not during the confinement and I will hold him for later.” So I dare not ask (partial unemployment) because I was promised an evolution in September and I need this evolution”

Worse, we ridicule their concern:

In my restaurant, when some employees filed their right to withdraw, they were told that it was just a flu. A nice hot shower and soup and it’s over.” To other salari-és who showed up for work with a mask, they said “don’t you want to come in a suit too?”. When the employees handed a letter mentioning their withdrawal to their superior, he replied “Oulahhh you come to sign me a paper, I hope he doesn’t have coronavirus, you disinfected it?” and saying “I don’t want to sign, I don’t like it, plus I don’t have a sanitized pen, sorry”. »

In several restaurants, employees will mobilize to demand guarantees of safety and respect for their rights, in the face of a management that cares only about its profits.

Unprecedented mobilization

The mobilization begins in the restaurant of Tours les Deux Lions where a group of employees faces a management that does not respect their safety or their right to withdraw. Over the days, employees mobilize in several restaurants, notably in Tours Grand Marché, Ville aux Dames, Amboise, Châtellerault, Vendôme. Several actions are undertaken from one restaurant to another, and sometimes collectively:

  • Mediating the situation: this is one of the levers that allows to put pressure on McDonald’s, pointing the finger at the scandalous practices of the brand and Simmenauer. The employees are calling on the media and the situation is widely reported in the national and local press. Here are three examples: the Mediapart article, the Streetpress article and the AJ video. We also encouraged citizen action to put pressure on McDonald’s France, encouraging all those who wished to send an email to Nawfal Trabelsi, CEO of McDo France, and Simmenauer, calling for the closure of the restaurants.
  • Strengthen trade union action: throughout the crisis, several employees (notably at Tours Grand Marché and Tours les Deux Lions) will mobilize alongside their staff delegates to exercise their right of alert, which subsequently triggers an investigation by the labour inspectorate. On 14 April, a letter written by employees of several restaurants was sent to the Direccte de Centre Val de Loire, Pays de la Loire and Nouvelle Aquitaine, listing all breaches of the safety and labour code committed by the managements in the McDonald’s. This collective approach will trigger several visits by the work inspectorate on restaurants.
  • Challenging politicians: some employees write to their local elected officials. At the end of March, two MEPs, Manon Aubry and Leïla Chaibi, got in touch with the employees of Tours les Deux Lions and met by skype: faced with the situation, the two MEPs decided to send an open letter on 3 April to Nawfal Trabelsi and Simmenauer, calling for the closure of the restaurants. The letter is also signed by local elected officials. We also relay the testimonies of the employees to the members of the relevant departments, and of them they take up the file. Finally, on 24 April, several regional and departmental elected officials sent a letter to the prefects of Indre and Loire and the Loir and Cher, in order to question them on the situation and to support the employees in sending a letter to the Direccte.
Call for action launched by ReAct
Article Streepress
Open letter from 2 MEPs

Thanks to these mobilizations, a real balance of power is established between employees on the one hand, Simmenauer and McDonald’s France on the other. By exerting pressure at the same time union, media and political, the employees managed to achieve real victories, even if the demand for the closure of the restaurants was not listened to: the conditions were improved on the restaurants, real safety guidelines were put in place and the right of withdrawal more widely respected. The directorates understood that they were being observed by the media, public opinion and labour inspection, and that they could therefore not continue to put employees at risk with impunity. Above all, this crisis has allowed employees to get together, to form groups of workers who act for their rights and to get in touch with the CGT Fast Restoration, an alliance that heralds a future of strong struggles over Simmenauer’s McDonald’s…

Gradual reopenings

While Simmenauer’s employees are the most exposed during the months of March and April, we have also remained vigilant about the rest of the restaurants in France. Once again, it is the franchise system that allows McDonald’s France to maximize its profits in defiance of the rights of employees: the brand refuses to adopt a coherent national policy in the face of the crisis and decides that it will be up to each franchisee to decide what to do – this is what leads to the catastrophic situation in the Tours region.

Faced with the bad buzz caused by the media coverage of the situation of Simmenauer employees, McDonald’s France counterattacks and claims that the 12 restaurants that remained open were part of the safety testing system developed in a health guide, as well as 3 restaurants that reopen in early April in the Ile de France. However, the health guide is not finalized until mid-April when the 12 restaurants have not closed since March 16th… In fact, Simmenauer’s employees have served as guinea pigs at McDo France, which is starting to gradually reopen its restaurants from mid-April. Again, there is no official communication on how many restaurants will reopen and how many employees are forced to return to work…

Kitchens with rubalises to enforce safe distances (McDonald’s photo)

Currently, McDonald’s are re-opening their takeaway and home delivery operations throughout France. Strict safety guidelines are announced, but it remains to be seen what their implementation will look like concretely on the ground… Many employees express their concern for their health and that of their loved ones, as well as their stress in the face of the new work organization: employees – and in particular managers – find themselves having to play the role of traffic agents in kitchens, working in a state of constant stress to enforce the measures, and must bear a considerable mental burden. The position of the ReAct is that of many employees and unions with whom we have been working for a long time: we must not reopen restaurants until the situation has stabilized. Even if McDonald’s France seems determined to despise the health (physical and mental) of its employees, we know that the mobilization of employees and the media, political and union work provided over the past two months has forced McDonald’s to slow the pace of reopenings. We will continue to be vigilant to ensure that the rights of employees are respected!

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