Child Labour: Hidden Shame Of Fast Food?

A couple of weeks ago we posted a shocking story about McDonald’s franchisees who were fined for mass infractions of federal child labour laws. Now, there’s word of a Popeye’s resto in California that’s been nailed for the same thing. Is this an epidemic?

Popeye's Counter Kids - © Linda Hoang.comA Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen resto in Edmonton Canada.
Most of the kids at the counter look high-school age…

Our May 5 story told of McDonald’s franchisees in Kentucky and Pennsylvania who required underage employees (mainly teenagers) to work more hours each week and later hours than allowed under federal labour laws. Folks were shocked that one franchisee had kids s young as 10 (albeit his own) working late and operating potentialy dangerous deep fryers.

Now, it’s California

Over this past weekend, a new story surfaced about a Popeye’s franchise, in Oakland Cali., where kids complained they were asked to work more than the 4 hours a day that California labour law allows, and sometimes past 11 p.m., another infraction.

Official complaints were filed by a several of the kids to the California state labor department on Wednesday. A mob of unhappy kids protested outside the Oakland store last Thursday.

The kids speak out

“One time I worked until 11p.m. on a school night, and I was late for school the next morning, because I overslept,” 17 year old cashier Johmara Romero wrote in a statement reported by the Los Angeles Times. “One time they called me into work at noon on a school day, even though school goes until 2:30 pm, because they were short-staffed. So I skipped school that day.”

Romero said she had begun to doubt whether she’d be able to finish high school and still keep the job.

“I started falling behind,” she told the Times. “I wouldn’t be able to get enough sleep. I would get frustrated. I don’t like falling behind in school. I would wonder if I would graduate because of my grades.”

Popeye’s speaks out

A Popeye’s head office spokesman told The Washington Post that the Oakland location where the labour infractions are alleged to have taken place was shut down as soon as the brass got word of the official complaints., and stated that Head office had started. “a swift investigation,”

“We will not tolerate any violation of employment laws,” the Popeyes spokesperson said. “And if any of these allegations prove true, we will take action against this franchisee.”

The Post says it also reached out to the franchisee, 14th Street Chicken Corporation, but got no response to a request for comment.

Why is this happening?

Fast Food operators are allowed to pay kids less than adults per hour. This may seem a small thing, but when you spread it over a whole payroll, it can add up to significant savings for an operator. As a sidelight, many kids are really happy to have the jobs and aren’t apt to complain. Hand in glove with that, many kids may not be aware they have rights under the law vis à vis working hours and conditions.

“Child labor violations have nearly quadrupled since 2015, according to Labor Department data, in part driven by persistent worker shortages and the arrival of migrant children without their parents in the United States,” the Post article said. “Young teens have been sacrificing their education, sleep, and making social connections to work for some of the country’s most recognizable employers who are hard-pressed for workers. […] Many of these violations have occurred in the fast food and restaurant industries, which have struggled to recover workers that left the industry during the pandemic, often for higher-paying jobs.”

Another aspect of the whole syndrome of overworking kids at Fast Food joints is that they miss a vital dimension of their teenage-hoods: coming of age socialization with their peers. But that isn’t covered under labour laws. Or any laws that I know of. One of the 17 year old cashiers quoted in he Post story said she could neither afford to attend her high school grad dance, nor get the time off work – and so missed the life landmark occasion altogether.

My take

My fear is that many more Fast Food operators than most of us suspect are using child labour illegally to remain financially afloat. And not just in the U.S.

Kids who think they may be getting abused by employers should be encouraged to report their situations to their folks and, if need be, to labour authorities…

~ Maggie J.