Popular UK “posh” burger chain Byron Burger has been at the center of a media flurry over the past week or so, as 35 members of its staff were rounded up and arrested in a controversial immigration sting. The controversy largely relates to Byron’s involvement in the sting.
The UK Home Office confirmed that on the morning of 4 July 2016, immigration officers raided Byron branches and arrested 35 “migrant workers” of Albanian, Brazilian, Egyptian and Nepalese nationality. In the initial reports, a senior manager in one of the branches alleged that staff, some of whom had been employed by Byron for as long as four years, had been falsely duped by Byron into attending a health and safety meeting at 9:30 a.m., when immigration officials quickly arrived and started to interview people.
Byron has confirmed that it facilitated the raid at the Home Office’s request but has refused to respond to the claims that it set up the staff meetings on false pretenses. Sometimes silence speaks a thousand words, as they say.
As such, in amongst the few messages of support for Byron, the critics have shouted louder, calling for a boycott of the chain. Two London branches have already been targeted in the backlash, where activists went so far as to release cockroaches and locusts into the restaurants, forcing them to be closed to customers.
But what are the rights and wrongs of this incident? First, the Home Office has acknowledged that Byron complied with its legal obligations, in particular its obligation to carry out “right to work” checks. The Home Office has issued guidance on what checks UK employers need to carry out on new workers (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/536953/An_Employer_s_guide_to_right_to_work_checks_-_July_16.pdf). Provided that an employer has carried out the appropriate checks, it will have a statutory excuse against liability for a civil penalty if it later comes to light that any worker has been working illegally in the UK. Employers must therefore ensure that the necessary checks are carried out, as the penalty for failure to do so (up to £20,000 for each illegal worker) could be substantial.
The issue with the Byron workers is that, in the course of its own investigation, the Home Office identified that those workers at the center of the alleged immigration breaches had provided false or counterfeit documentation as proof of their right to work in the UK. The Home Office then made a specific request to Byron to assist it with its investigation, which Byron did.
Perhaps, then, the PR nightmare that is the Byron story should be treated as a cautionary tale of how not to assist in a Home Office investigation. The recent trend seems to show that the Home Office is really cracking down on illegal workers and, accordingly, Home Office investigations are likely to become a live issue for a number of employers. Employers need to balance their legal obligations against their more human responsibilities to their staff.
No one is condoning illegal working or the falsification of documentation. However, arguably, if Byron had dealt with the issue more sensitively and compassionately, it could have mitigated the negative press it received. In an era when people have the world at their fingertips, consumers are calling out to see the human face of business.