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31/07/01 . Steven Morris . The Guardian . UK
£12,400 child labour fine on McDonald's
Two McDonald's restaurants in one of Britain's wealthiest areas have been heavily fined for exploiting child workers. Ten schoolchildren, including a girl who worked 16 hours on a Saturday and another who worked until 2am on a schoolday, were found to be illegally employed at a McDonald's in Camberley, Surrey.
The company that holds the franchises for the restaurants, Ikhya Enterprises, was fined £12,400 by north-west Surrey magistrates, after admitting 20 offences of illegally employing schoolchildren.
This is thought to be one of the largest fines imposed on a company for breaking laws relating to child working conditions, and has been welcomed by child employment experts as evidence that the courts are beginning to take such offences more seriously.
The prosecution comes as a huge embarrassment to McDonald's, which aspires to be the "best employer in each community in the world" but has been the centre of controversy over workers' conditions before. Two years ago in London three appeal court judges ruled in the "McLibel Case" that it was fair comment to say McDonald's employees "do badly in terms of pay and conditions". And last year the company faced a boycott after it was claimed that Chinese suppliers of toys given away with meals were being paid a few pence an hour.
The restaurants in Camberley were visited by child employment officers in January after a parent complained. Officers found that none of the children had work permits, which an employer must obtain from the local authority if giving work to children of school age.
The company applied for the permits and was given a formal warning. But during three weeks in May and June, the officers revisited the restaurants and identified 51 breaches of the regulations involving 10 schoolchildren aged 15 and 16. Ian Hart, Surrey county council's child employment officer, said: "One 15-year-old girl worked 16 hours on a Saturday and another girl worked from 5pm until 2am the following morning on a schoolday."
Children aged 15 and 16 can only work eight hours on a Saturday during the school term. They can only work for two hours at the end of the school day but must stop by 7pm.
Mr Hart said: "This was one of the biggest ever prosecutions in the illegal employment of schoolchildren and it is refreshing the court has taken such a tough stance." Bharti Patel, director of the low pay unit, expressed shock at what the officers had found. She said: "Despite all the efforts of many organisations, it seems that companies are unable to abide by the rules."
The TUC, which believes up to 500,000 schoolchildren could be working illegally, said a firm like McDonald's had a special responsibility to ensure that youngsters were not distracted from school work.
The policy of McDonald's in the UK is to only employ workers who have left school. However, it is up to franchise holders to decide whether to employ schoolchildren.
A spokesman for McDonald's, which has 1.5m employees in 119 countries, said: "We take our responsibility as an employer seriously. Our franchisee, Kevin Izatt, did hire staff below the minimum school leaving age and breached the law in terms of hours worked.
"We expect our franchisees and managers to maintain the highest standards in all restaurants. We are deeply disappointed that this was not the case in this instance. To avoid any risk of repetition he will no longer employ children under school leaving age."
The court hearing took place in Woking last week, but details only emerged yesterday.