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 of the problem over a year ago but usually challenges to the dismissals were dealt with through confidential settlements so we couldn’t expose the issue publicly. We tried to tell the company that what it was doing was illegal and a potential PR disaster. In August we became aware that the dismissals were continuing so decided to raise the issue publicly. Doing yet more “confidential” settlements was not a solution. The company needed a wake up call.
We also approached the Human Rights Commission but I was shocked to discover that they can’t investigate or prosecute companies for institutional failure. They only deal with individuals and again, usually, confidential settlements are reached at mediation.
But a bit of media attention (see below) 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 do more than individual advocacy. That is also what unionism should be about.
– Mike Treen, Unite National Director
Herald on Sunday, September 29, 2013
Fast-food giant bows to public outrage and offers to reinstate laid-off workers
Tanya van Lunenburg is expected to be offered her old job back at KFC in Birkenhead.
By Amanda Snow, Herald on Sunday, September 29, 2013
Disabled workers who were axed from their jobs at KFC are being offered their positions back with the company.
Herald on Sunday revelations of store restructures that forced out staff with disabilities outraged customers in New Zealand and overseas, with many people taking to the fast-food giant’s Facebook page with calls for a boycott.
The story was shared 54,000 times on Facebook and more than 200 times on Twitter.
KFC also came under pressure from the Unite Union, Labour MP Jacinda Ardern and Green MP Mojo Mathers who said cutting limited-duties roles deliberately targeted workers with disabilities.
This week, the company relented.
“We’re really pleased we’ve been able to reach an agreement with Unite Union to reinstate these roles,” said Restaurant Brands chief executive Russel Creedy.
“We understand how important these roles are for disabled staff, their families and caregivers.”
Unite’s Mike Treen said the company had agreed to contact each of the 17 affected workers to offer them re-employment with appropriate training. Even workers who left with confidential settlements would be “welcomed back”, according to KFC general manager Brent Kitto.
Kitto said a company review was already under way.
“We won’t just sweep this under the carpet. It looks like we’re heartless and it’s not the case at all,” Kitto said. “I’m still trying to work out how it got to where it did. I’m just ecstatic we’ve got a really good resolution.”
Meetings have been arranged with some of the axed workers. “Hopefully we will have meaningful jobs for these guys and welcome them back into the team at KFC,” said Kitto.
Mojo Mathers said she was delighted. “KFC has listened to public opinion,” she said. “I hope that KFC rethinking their position will inspire other employers to look at the ways they can make their workplaces and employment policies inclusive of workers with disabilities.”
Jacinda Ardern is pleased the company has done the “right thing”. “It shows the power of people sharing their views and making them known. Organisations like this can’t afford to ignore them anymore.”
Overjoyed to be back on the job
Tanya van Lunenburg has had a great week, and things ought to get even better.
The 48-year-old, who has an intellectual disability, is among the disabled KFC workers with “limited duties” roles who were laid off by the company.
They are now being approached with offers of re-employment.
Tanya lost her position packing the potato and gravy at the KFC in Auckland’s Birkenhead last year after 18 years on the job.
Her father Bob, 83, said he was overjoyed when KFC contacted him this week with a request to meet on Monday: “It was altogether too much to believe.”
But he hasn’t had the heart to tell his daughter in fear of getting her hopes up. “I’m cautiously optimistic and that’s hard to explain to Tanya,” he said.
“I didn’t dare tell her because she will be totally overcome to get back on the bus to work and join her old workmates,” he said.
On Friday, Tania revisted her old workplace. “She had a chat to her old manager and got hugs from her former colleagues.”
Work for the mentally disabled used to be provided in so called sheltered work- shops. These days, it depends on employers with a sense of social responsibility. They can give disabled people the dignity of a real job and semblance of personal independence.
One of those employers has been the fast-food chain, KFC New Zealand. Its staff included disabled people who could do basic tasks such as filling its side-order packs and cleaning. Last year it had a change of heart.
Its owner, Restaurant Brands, decided to review its costs and find ways to maximise the chain’s profitability. One way was to require all staff to be capable of doing any job in the store, from the counter to the kitchen. Soon, the disabled were getting notice.
Today, it is a pleasure to report jobs for all abilities are being restored. Restaurant Brands has announced an agreement with the Unite Union to re-instate “limited duties roles”. Chief executive Russel Cready says, “We understand how important these roles are for disabled staff, their families and caregivers.”
What the company really understands is how much damage last year’s decision was doing to its business.
The Herald on Sunday revealed the systematic lay-offs of disabled workers at KFC. The anguish of these people and their families was heart-rending. One of them was a 48-year-old woman who had been packing potato and gravy at a KFC outlet for nearly 18 years. She loved putting on her uniform and going proudly to work, her sister said.
Then she was handed a notice that indicated her job had been abolished because she could not take a turn at the front counter.
Cases such as that caused KFC customers to express their disgust on the company’s Facebook page, some resolving never to set foot in a KFC outlet again and calling on others to boycott the brand.
Wisely, the company had second thoughts this week, agreeing to re-employ the 17 affected people in limited duties roles and provide training in health and safety practices so that they can work unsupervised.
For those unable to work unsupervised, it will consider having a caregiver on site.
If KFC proves to be as good as its word, it will deserve praise as loud as the protest it has received. We the public do not give socially responsible employers enough recognition when they deserve it.
Employment is a heavy responsibility and a major cost of any business. Those that make room for disabled people, even at minimum wages, may sometimes be compromising their efficiency and profitability to a degree. They do not advertise their gesture and do not expect customers to reward them for it. But we should.
Next time we encounter someone with a disability working in the likes of a supermarket or a service station, we should make a note to ourselves to visit more often.
The pride these people take in their jobs and the care they bring to them is as great, or indeed greater, than many other workers who may be more complacent about their employment.
The closing of institutions and the inclusion of disabled people in everyday life and jobs has been one of the great social advances of recent times. Employers who take the trouble to make a little room for them are acting with quiet humanity. KFC was one of them and if it acts as it now says, it will deserve that credit again.