"Beef with Byron": the restaurant on the frontlines of the immigration debate

After the deportation of 35 workers, Byron is mired in a debate that sets the restaurant's 'business ethics' against the politics surrounding immigration.

Julian Sayarer
4 August 2016
 Yui Mok / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved

Protesters outside the Holborn branch of Byron. Photo: Yui Mok / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In comparison with recent actions where cockroaches, locusts and crickets were released into central London restaurants, Monday’s demonstration at the Holborn Byron Burger restaurant was of a more orderly nature. Beneath the front window of the establishment, closed for the day by the impending picket, a crowd gathered to demand justice for those members of Byron staff recently deported to Brazil, Nepal, Egypt and elsewhere. The staff had been summoned to early morning training sessions that transpired to be a Home Office immigration raid. Byron have claimed the training session was not collusion, despite many consistent testimonials to the contrary by deported staff. This seems to be a lie that evidences the wrongdoing the company sense it has committed. 

The protest outside was, even on a rainy afternoon, well-attended and vocal. Popular chants included  “How do you like your burgers? … Without deportations!”. A placard announced that a protester had “beef with Byron” and written statements were read to the crowd. One spoke of Home Office staff overheard to have said, before the unsuspecting arrival of the Byron workers a week ago, “I can’t wait to pounce on a waiter.” Many of those 35 workers, some of them now already back overseas, had been Byron staff for a number of years; many had begun settled lives and families in the UK.

Many of those 35 workers [...] had begun settled lives and families in the UK

Beyond simple facts such as these, ambiguities remain. The workers were not known by Byron to have been in the UK illegally, and counterfeit documents had been used to secure employment. The assumption from anti-immigrant voices is that the workers themselves would also have been universally aware of this fact, and not also potential victims of the counterfeiters. In an interesting statement on expected corporate ethics, comment has suggested that this presumed transgression in turn legitimised any deceit used by Byron in luring their staff on behalf of the Home Office. Union representatives have argued that Byron did “the only thing they shouldn’t have done”, and argued that dismissal of those found to be working illegally would have been the more obvious course of action. 

The episode is a model in the corporate and social roles of companies, not least questions over to whom their loyalties are owed. In services rendered to the government; there can be no fault levied at Byron. In obligations to their staff; it appears the 35 staff had no right to work there anyway. A third point of contention is whether Byron and companies like them have any debt to a social contract; a set of ideals that help uphold the values of a dignified society in which corporate collusion with the state is to be treated, rightly, with suspicion. It will be interesting to see if the controversy can raise some clarity and progress amongst the acrimony; Byron will be as unhappy as any at the situation they have been put in by government.

being law-abiding and maintaining the barest decency towards employees can now pass for corporate benevolence.

Looked at from a social perspective, the company's role in assisting immigrant deportation raises more sobering points. It is clear confirmation, if more was needed, of the value we place on the lives of precarious employees to the service worker economy, on whose labour Byron has thrived before and since their 2013 buy-out by the private equity firm Hutton Collins. The 35 will soon be replaced, no doubt. Defenders of Byron’s position have cited that it is in fact a good employer: the company pays the correct wages, allows staff to keep their tips, and does not force zero-hours contracts on those who work there. This praise is a signal that being law-abiding and maintaining the barest decency towards employees can now pass for corporate benevolence.

As for the very modern question of Byron’s 'corporate personality', grass-fed cows and energy efficient buildings are noble efforts - but in light of recent events, they feel somehow facile. Commitment to the environment is a more deliverable ethical code, and one perhaps more satisfying to middle-class customers, than treading a moral path in a complex setting of human concerns. On the window of the Holborn restaurant, stencilled lettering offers “Lunch, dinner and everything in between”. Always so well-dressed as a home for free-spirited, rebel-trimmed metropolitans that defy definition, Byron has helped delineate who is entitled to that free-spirited life and who is not. While selling itself strongly as the contrary, the issue shows a company for whom business seems very black and white.

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