Two upmarket London burger restaurants were reportedly closed after thousands of live insects were thrown into them in protest at the British chain’s ‘underhand trickery’ in cooperating with an immigration sting on allegedly illegal workers.
The Independent reports that the Byron chain’s Shaftesbury Avenue and Holborn branches were closed during the incident on 29 July, during what would have been the restaurants’ Friday evening busy period. And the Holborn branch was apparently again closed on 01 August in anticipation of a further protest, expected to attract 1,300 people but ultimately attended by around 200.
According to the Huffington Post, activist groups London Black Revs and Malcolm X Movement claimed to have released as many as 4,000 cockroaches, 2,000 locusts and 8,000 crickets, in a move the groups said was aimed to ‘make Byron pay for their horrifically exploitative misdeeds’.
The immigration raid on the morning of 04 July has been widely reported in British media after being exposed by Spanish-language, London-based online newspaper El Ibérico. The Home Office has said its ‘enforcement officers carried out intelligence-led visits to a number of Byron restaurants across London on July 4, arresting 35 people for immigration offences.’
Those arrested are said to have be Albanian, Brazilian, Nepalese and Egyptian nationals, and the Guardian reports that at least 25 of the 35 were said to have been deported from the UK as of 01 August.
The Home Office said the operation had been carried out with the ‘full cooperation’ of the burger chain, and dismissed suggestions that the company’s employees had been lured to an event in order to facilitate their arrest.
That denial came in response to allegations reported in El Ibérico that staff at Byron – which London Black Revs and Malcolm X have described to the Huffington Post as ‘a company that made millions off the backs of migrant labour [sic] [and] duped its own workers’ – were asked to attend a health and safety training session before being transferred to a room of immigration officials.
Byron confirmed that it had cooperated fully during the operation, which it said was led by the Home Office, and that it had carried out ‘rigorous’ checks on employee documents at the hiring stage and had been ‘unaware that any of [its] workers were in possession of counterfeit documentation until the Home Office brought it to [its] attention’.
The Home Office confirmed this, adding that the firm would not face penalties. Companies that fail to properly execute their duties to check employees’ right to work in the UK can ordinarily face fines of up to £20,000 (around 931,000 baht) per staff member.
Netizens have reacted loudly to the initial immigration sting, with the #boycottbyron hashtag used by those both calling for and questioning the reasoning behind a boycott of the chain. Twitter user Abbie wrote that ‘luring your own staff who’s [sic] labour you’ve benefited from for 4+ years into a room filled with cops is next level SNAKE’.
And deputy leader of the UK’s Green Party Amelia Womack was quoted by the Huffington Post as insisting that, while ‘nobody wants people to be working illegally in the UK – not least because they face exploitation from unscrupulous bosses…this alleged act of underhand trickery from Byron is unforgivable.’
But others such as Twitter user John Grady said they were ‘struggling to see what Byron did wrong’ and that the company had ‘helped law enforcement arrest people suspected of using fake docs’, while Liam Stallard claimed people were ‘now protesting [against Byron Burgers] for complying with the law.’
Byron, founded in 2007, was bought by investment firm Hutton Collins for £100 million (around 4.65 billion baht) in 2013, according to the Guardian. Its web site shows it currently has 40 branches in London and another 24 elsewhere in the UK, plus one more branch scheduled to open ‘soon’.
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed and the Guardian have since reported that the burger chain’s UK parent company Hellespont Holdings has reduced its UK corporation tax liability by making interest payments on ‘expensive loans’ from offshore group companies based in tax havens. The company has denied the allegations, insisting that ‘it does not move profits offshore…it fully complies with UK tax law and guidance and it does not manage its tax affairs aggressively.’