One of Australia's largest McDonald's franchise operators is being taken to court for allegedly subjecting young workers to "cruel and inhumane" conditions, including limiting bathroom breaks.
Tantex Holdings, owned by prominent Brisbane hospitality figure Tanya Manteit-Mulcahy, is being sued in the Federal Court in Queensland by the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union.
In a statement of claim filed earlier this month, the union claims Tantex Holdings breached multiple workplace laws and accused managers of engaging in coercion and threatening conduct, news.com.au reports.
Tantex Holdings owns and operates several McDonald's outlets in Brisbane and is one of the fast-food giant's biggest franchisees.
In January, news broke of a leaked message from a store manager in a private Facebook group for staff at its Windsor West outlet. That message is now at the centre of the legal action.
It was responding to a union request to allow employees to take one paid 10-minute break every four hours, which some workers had asked for and were entitled to under the award.
"I hope to God you don't get thirsty on your next shift because we just wouldn't be able to allow a drink," the post from store manager Chris Crenicean read.
"If we implement this … this 10-minute break would be the only time you would ever be permitted to have a drink or go to the toilet."
The manager wrote that most crew members would not qualify for the paid break given many work shy of four hours, so banning them from taking any breaks was reasonable because "fair is fair".
The RFFWU said in its statement of claim the assertion was incorrect and most staff were eligible for the paid breaks.
The social media tirade was sparked by requests from some staff to take the break, with the manager writing: "We go above and beyond … are we really such bad guys? Honestly!"
The message began: "As we all LOVE the legislation and are all clearly so hard done by … let me clarify for you the below ENTITLEMENT! We are more than happy to go with the standard 10-minute break policy … for those crew who are all over Facebook tagging each other and commenting."
The statement of claim also outlines alleged instances of sick days being withheld.
In late June 2016, Manteit-Mulcahy wrote in the Central Station outlet's closed Facebook group that anyone who was sick must find their own replacement.
"If you cannot find a replacement you are required to work," she wrote.
A worker who was unwell was told she could "absolutely not" call in sick, with Manteit-Mulcahy writing: "You need to work this shift."
In other Facebook posts at various times, leaked by workers, Manteit-Mulcahy wrote, "The sick calls and no shows. ENOUGH! Sort out your lives!" and "STOP THE SICK CALLS … IT IS RIDICULOUS".
Another aspect of the claim relates to a post made in the group in December last year by a manager at the same outlet, Crystal Locke, regarding shifts on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
The roster was "final", Locke wrote, adding: "There are no shift swaps or sick calls on public holidays."
And in a separate message that month, Locke also advised staff that she "would not accept a sick call past 10pm for an open (the next day)" at other times.
The RFFWU claims the alleged conduct of Tantex Holdings created an unsafe work environment.
Rather than respond to claims raised by the union and in subsequent media reports, Tantex Holdings instead warned its workers "not to post anything McDonalds related on any social media including commenting on any FB pages relating to McDonalds (sic)".
After the leaked message regarding toilet and drink breaks in January, current and former staff rallied outside Tantex Holdings' store in Queen Street Mall.
Noah Nicholson, who worked for the franchisee before quitting in frustration, alleged workplace practices "terrified" young staff.
"Their scare tactics are coming to light now, but nobody really knows how bad it had gotten," Nicholson claimed.
"There were a lot of times I would see managers not give people shifts if they had to take toilet breaks."
The Federal Court action is the first of its kind against McDonald's in Australia – but the union vows it won't be the last.
McDonald's Australia said it and Tantex Holdings couldn't comment on specifics given the matter was before the court.
"We work closely with our restaurants to ensure all our employees receive the correct entitlements and pay, and we have a dedicated employee assistance hotline available to any McDonald's staff members who have queries regarding their employment conditions," a spokesperson said.
"This allows us to work with restaurants to ensure any concerns are addressed."
Tantex Holdings has until February 7 to file its defence. The case will be heard in the Federal Court next June unless an agreement is reached in mediation.