Burger King, part of the Grand Metropolitan Group, which made pounds 654m pre- tax profits last year, launched an internal inquiry into "the abuse of labour scheduling" after a Glasgow student said clocking off and on as often as four times a day meant he was paid less than pounds 1 for a five-hour shift.
The chain insisted that it was an isolated incident, but unions, low- pay pressure groups and the Labour Party claimed such practices - a variation of "zero-hours" contracts - were widespread and the inevitable result of trade-union legislation and the removal of legal protection for those on low wages.
"We are not denying that this should not have happened," said a spokeswoman for Burger King, which claimed it was never the company's intention to control "labour requirements" this way. The company was clearly embarrassed by press coverage of the case, highlighted yesterday in Today.
Grand Metropolitan operates a charity, the Grand Metropolitan Trust, which has won preferred-bidder status to run the privatised careers service in south London.
Burger King said that the student, who had recently left school, should have complained. But last night the 17-year-old, who would only give his name as Michael, said that when he left the Burger King in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow, just three weeks after starting, he had explained why.
"They said I could have refused to take breaks or go home when they asked," said Michael, who claims he was promised pounds 3.10 an hour. "But it was never presented as something you could refuse. There were quite a few employees my age and a lot of students. It was the same deal for everyone. All the staff had to clock off when there were few customers, sometimes four times a day. We were very badly treated. They just used you as they needed you.
"Once I came in for a five-hour shift and was asked to go home after 15 minutes. The best day I had was working four of the five hours. I often worked two hours out of five and had to hang around, without pay, in the breaks between."
He said the experience had been a salutary lesson in the power of big business. Unsurprisingly, he reports that staff turnover was very high.
His father, John, a school-teacher, said that he thought his son was confused when he first explained his terms and conditions. "Then he showed me the clocking-in slips. I was so annoyed. It is contrary to the laws of natural justice. It doesn't say much for Britain."
Usdaw, the shopworkers' union, said similar cases led to its push for a ban on "zero-hour" contracts at last week's TUC conference.
But the actual extent of their use was hard to gauge. Companies using them were hostile to unions, their employees often young and vulnerable and their staff turnover high.
"It's a shameful situation and we just can't get in to represent them," said Barry Allen, Usdaw's spokesman. "Companies often portray themselves as model employers but work young kids to death. We want these contracts outlawed." Wage councils, which protected the low-paid, were abolished for the young in 1986 and two years ago for adults.
Gabrielle Cox, co-ordinator with Greater Manchester Low- Pay Unit, said that parents often called to complain that their children were working for pitiful wages and even for nothing, during "trials".
Surveys of school-leavers in Greater Manchester indicated that the number of suitable job vacancies had dropped dramatically. Desperate 16- and 17-years-olds, no longer entitled to benefits, would work for appaling wages. Ian McCartney, Labour's employment spokesman, said the incident represented "the unacceptable face of boardroom greed in Britain". Directors at Grand Metropolitan have seen their salaries rise by 14.5 per cent in the last year.
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