Unite Union has reached an agreement with Restaurant Brands over the dismissal of 17 workers at KFC with disabilities that includes offering them the chance to get their jobs back.
Over the past year and a half the company has been carrying out store “restructures” that involved demanding staff with disabilities meet an impossibly high bar of being able to do every job in the store to stay employed. The agreement with Unite Union provides for the establishment of a “limited duties role” that can be done by disabled workers once minimum health and safety training has been completed. These roles will be offered to all the dismissed staff even if they have received a settlement when the dismissal was challenged by Unite or their advocacy group.
Unite became aware something was happening late in 2012. But the company’s HR department tried to keep the union in the dark. I became involved in a legal challenge to a dismissal the resulted in a mediation in February this year where the company had to justify itself. Following the mediation I wrote to the company HR saying that what they were doing was completely illegal and would result in a PR disaster if they continued. I recommended that they stop the “restructures”, offer jobs back to those dismissed and pay compensation to those sacked.
One problem we faced was that generally where dismissed staff challenged it the company was willing to pay compensation rather than offer them their job back. All settlements were of course confidential.
We had assumed the company has backed off the restructures as we didn’t hear of any more cases. Then in August we heard that a union member was to be restructured out of a job in Te Awamutu and was one of three being affected in Waikato stores.
We now knew that our “warning” to the company in February wasn’t enough. We knew we had to go public if we were to be able to stop the processes. Doing yet more “confidential” settlements was not a solution. The company needed a wake up call and senior managers step in. Our problem was that all the cases we knew of had reached settlements. But we began the search again and came up with a few cases where no settlement had been done.
We approached the Human Rights Commission but I was shocked to discover that they can’t investigate companies and aren’t able to prosecute them for institutional failures. They only deal with individuals and again, usually, confidential settlements are reached at mediation.
We tried to interest the media in the story but for most it was “old news”. The exception was the Herald on Sunday which also did its own investigation and was able to do stories that put a human face on the dismissals.
That was enough for KFC to get dozens of angry messages on its facebook page. Senior management minds at Restaurant Brands got focussed and agreed that something had gone wrong.
There is a lesson here. Unions are about solidarity. That means in particular solidarity and support for the most vulnerable. In this case these workers were the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. They often couldn’t even speak for themselves. They needed advocates. Often these advocates did a heroic job to try and get the company to reverse course. But treating each situation as an individual “problem” to be solved is not a way forward when we have a case of institutional failure. That’s where the union is able to more than individual advocacy.
We weren’t faultless on this occasion either. Under the pressure of day to day work we had assumed the company had stopped what it was doing and that was a mistake I have to take responsibility for. Luckily in this case we were able discover the dismissals were continuing, expose what was happening and bring it to an end. This time we abandoned the strategy of dealing with individual cases and decided to make the fight a public one. That is also what unionism should be about.