A former assistant manager of a McDonald's "store of the year" told the High Court today that staff prepared food while sewage covered the kitchen floor. Simon Gibney, who over three years worked his way up to salaried management after being taken on as a 16-year-old, also accused the chain of watering down products and cutting labour costs to the bone. Mr Gibney, 27, who left the hamburger empire in December 1987, was giving evidence in the libel action between the company and two London environmentalists, which is now well into its second year. Dave Morris, 41, and Helen Steel, 29, are being sued over claims in a leaflet they distributed which accused McDonald's of poisoning its customers, exploiting its workers and Third World countries and damaging the environment. The company's QC, Richard Rampton, has branded the allegations as "completely false in every material respect". It is pursuing the pair, who are unwaged, for an injunction banning repetition of the allegations, as there is no prospect of the company recovering more than nominal damages or its massive legal costs. Mr Gibney told Mr Justice Bell that the company's reluctance to exceed its equipment budget at Colchester, Essex - store of the year in 1987 - and buy a new filtering machine meant that cooking fat was poured down the sinks, eventually blocking the drains. "I can remember on at least two occasions sewage coming up through the floor vents in the kitchen area and being mopped out of the way while we were working. "On one occasion it was two inches deep and we upturned 4in high bun tins to stand on while we put ingredients in the burgers and manned the grills, so the store could stay open."
Mr Gibney said that to improve its yield performance Colchester's area supervisor instructed the store manager to water down drinks syrups, ketchup, mustard and milk shake mix, reduce fillings and squeeze fries cartons when filling them. Out of date onions and buns would be used and food would be sold beyond its 10-minute holding time. Often there were complaints that the burger was cold or raw, or that the cola and milk shakes tasted funny. He said that if the store was busier than forecast, staff were pressured into staying on over their shifts and inexperienced employees were regularly left on potentially dangerous equipment by themselves for the sake of maintaining a low labour rate. "Looking back now, I find it alarming that the labour rate was the only thing taken into account when setting staffing levels - safety played absolutely no part." Mr Gibney said that when he was under 18, he regularly worked past midnight and was told to "fiddle" his time card. A paid taxi home was never offered, even if he worked on until 6am. He said that if an employee was scheduled to clean up a store after it had closed, he could be called on to stay all night, which sometimes resulted in an 18-hour shift. Mr Gibney said he never received any overtime throughout his stay with the chain and eventually left after one month at the Milton Keynes branch because of the hours. He was expected to work shifts of 12 hours or more six days a week and ensure other staff did the same - often without a proper break. His final salary was under £6,000-per-annum which equated to less than £2-per-hour.
Mr Gibney said he felt "brainwashed" at a floor managers' course at the chain's Hamburger University in London. "Most of the time was taken up in videos and speeches congratulating the company rather than learning anything. "It was very different to the way the stores actually worked. To run the store the way the operations manual would suggest would need far more staff. "If there was an important visitor, it would be staffed to a level where everything could be carried out properly. But at all other times that wouldn't be the case." He added: "When you leave McDonald's it must be like leaving the army - a big part of you is missing and it takes quite a while to readjust."
The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow.