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SDA seeks $250m compensation from McDonald's operators who allegedly denied paid breaks to Australian workers

The claim against McDonalds would be one of the largest of its kind in Australia. (ABC News: ABC News)

McDonald's has been slapped with a wage theft claim of at least $250 million in the Federal Court over alleged denial of paid breaks to workers.

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA) is seeking compensation on behalf of more than 250,000 current and former McDonald's workers across Australia.

If successful, the union said the claim would be one of the largest of its kind in Australia's history. 

The SDA is alleging workers at more than 1,000 current and former McDonald's sites were denied their uninterrupted 10-minute break when working fours hours or more during a shift. 

South Australia branch secretary Josh Peak said McDonald's workers were told if they want their paid break, they cannot get a drink or go to the toilet. 

He said in almost two years of investigation the union had heard more than 10,000 accounts from former and current employees, including young Australians, at McDonald's stores across Australia.

"Workers were systematically, deliberately denied the rights to those breaks," Mr Peak told ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast.

"It's just not good enough that a large employer such as McDonalds would create a scheme that leads to people not being paid correctly or getting base entitlements."

The statement of claim alleged workers had to seek permission to get a drink or go to the bathroom and could be directed to resume work before their 10-minute break was up.  

Mr Peak said workers were misled or not informed about their rest break entitlements and the multi-billion dollar corporation should be penalised for it. 

"It is really outrageous behaviour to be tricking young people into thinking they are not entitled to go the toilet if they utilised their paid entitlements," he said.

"Workers never got their paid 10-minute rest break and when workers did ask for it, they were told 'we don't do that here because you can go the toilet whenever you like', which is completely ludicrous."

Josh Peak said McDonald's workers should be entitled to paid breaks. (ABC News)

The claim named 323 McDonald's operators who allegedly denied paid rest breaks to workers over the past six years.

McDonald's Australia issued a statement in which it denied the claims. 

"McDonald's believes its restaurants complied with applicable instruments, provided rest breaks to employees and were consistent with historic working arrangements," a McDonald's spokeswoman said.

"Those arrangements have been known to the SDA for many years. The manner of taking breaks has not been challenged or raised by the SDA as a matter of concern throughout successive enterprise bargaining processes for new industrial agreements.

"We are very mindful of our obligations under applicable employment laws, including the former enterprise agreement and the Fast Food Industry Award, and continue to work closely with our restaurants to ensure employees receive all correct workplace entitlements and pay."

But the SDA said McDonald's was aware that the union had raised the issue of breaks in the past two rounds of Enterprise Agreement negotiations.

Claim originates from SA

The new claim is in conjunction with the SDA's 15 existing Federal Court claims against McDonald's Australia and 14 franchisees — seven of them in South Australia. 

In December 2020, 14 McDonald's employees at the Frewville and Mount Barker restaurants lodged a compensation claim after allegedly being denied their 10-minute rest break.

As a result of that action, the investigation extended nationwide.

Isabelle said she was forced to choose between going to the bathroom or having a drink when she was working at McDonald's. (ABC News: Isabel Dayman)

Isabelle, who worked at McDonald's in the Adelaide CBD for almost five years, said she was not given her entitled 10-minute break, but instead was allowed drink breaks freely during shifts.

"The drink break was only for 20 seconds, or as fast as you could drink and then come back to work straightaway," she said.

"I'd spoken to my bosses about it and they just told us that we didn't get them, they chose to do something different, and that it was legal, it was all fine.

"There were a lot of managers that would get angry if you needed to go to the bathroom and have a drink break.

"They saw it as you being lazy and not actually doing what you need to do."

She said she was scared of other managers at her former workplace, even when she was in managerial positions.

"I remembered thinking, what do I need more? Do I need a drink more or do I need to go to the bathroom more — and then you just pick from there," she said.

"Now that we're going into an actual, normal workplace, we know that that definitely wasn't normal to be stressed about going to the bathroom or getting a drink."

Mr Peak said the same story was being repeated across the country.

He said the claim was also about sending a message to other franchises.

"It's also about sending a signal right throughout the entire fast food industry that young workers, just because they're young, doesn't mean you can lie to them."

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