Workers contracted to work for western brands in Saudi Arabia have described conditions as ‘like jail’
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Over the years the world’s most powerful fast-food chain, McDonald’s, has twice honored a Saudi prince’s business empire with its highest accolade for its franchisees: the Golden Arch award.
Prince Mishaal bin Khalid al-Saud – who controls more than 200 McDonald’s outlets across Saudi Arabia – told CEO Magazine in 2018 that one of the secrets of his enterprise’s success is “ensuring a positive and favorable environment for our employees”.
Macrae Lee and Buddhiman Sunar recall a different environment. They say that they labored under harsh and unfair conditions at McDonald’s locations owned and operated by the prince’s Riyadh International Catering Corp (RICC).
Lee, who is from the Philippines, says RICC’s store managers ordered him to put in as many as 22 hours a day and hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime. He was denied days off for rest, he says, even when he was sick with fever. When he tried to quit, a manager withheld paperwork that would have permitted him to find a new employer, he claims, leaving him jobless and begging on the street for food and water.
Sunar says he had to pay a stiff recruiting fee to an employment agent in Nepal to get a job at the prince’s fast-food outlets. Once he was in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, he worked 13- and 14-hour shifts with no breaks, he says. All the while, managers screamed abuse, he says, calling him “an animal” and asking: “Don’t you have a brain in your head?” If he stepped outside the restaurant, he says, he had to fill out an “incident report” explaining why.
“I felt trapped,” Sunar, who left his job with the Saudi McDonald’s franchisee in 2022, said in an interview. “I felt like I was in jail.”
Lee and Sunar are among nearly 100 migrant laborers from Asia who say they’ve been subjected to repressive labor practices while working at the Persian Gulf locations of four well-known American and British brands: McDonald’s, Amazon, Chuck E Cheese and the InterContinental Hotels Group.
The current and former workers say independent employment agents in their home countries coerced them into paying exorbitant recruiting fees, while labor contractors and workplace supervisors in Saudi Arabia and other destination countries subjected them to abuses that included confiscating their passports and limiting their freedom to leave their jobs.
These practices are widely identified as indicators of labor trafficking, which is defined by the United States and the United Nations as using force, coercion or fraud to exploit workers.
The workers were interviewed as part of Trafficking Inc, a joint investigation by the Guardian US, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), NBC News, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and other media partners. The latest installments in the investigation reveal how some of the world’s most recognized companies may be complicit in labor abuses through their overseas subsidiaries, franchises and business partnerships.
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The abuses uncovered in this investigation may mean the American parent companies have breached the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law enacted in 2000 to protect trafficking victims and prosecute traffickers, legal experts say.
“In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act imposes liability on companies who benefit from participation in a venture that uses forced labor, provided that they knew or should have known of the forced labor,” says Agnieszka Fryszman, partner and chair of the human rights practice at Cohen Milstein, a US law firm. “A franchise agreement would certainly seem to qualify as a venture, and any profit or market share would qualify as a benefit.”
Fryszman and other anti-trafficking experts say big corporations should aggressively monitor the labor practices of their subsidiaries and partners in the Persian Gulf region, which is known for weak labor protections and abuses against migrant workers.