CHICAGO (AFP) -
Kim Lawson took a second job at McDonald's last year in Kansas City, Missouri, to help make ends meet as a single mother to a three-year-old girl.
It did not take long before two co-workers -- one a manager -- began sexually harassing her, the 25-year-old says.
One would repeatedly brush up against her. The other made suggestive comments about her body, telling her "You can talk to me when your boyfriend is not around."
Her complaints to management did not stop the harassment.
"I felt helpless," Lawson told AFP. "I was ashamed that it was happening to me."
One year after the #MeToo movement sprang up from the lurid allegations of abuse and harassment against Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein, McDonald's employees and other low-wage and blue-collar workers are seeking to join the movement.
Lacking celebrity wattage or political might, they are turning to public displays, such as protests, legal battles, and teaching each other about their rights.
Lawson's allegations are detailed in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) -- the US agency tasked with investigating worker discrimination claims -- filed in concert with nine other McDonald's workers in May.
They range from a 36-year-old cook in Los Angeles who claimed a co-worker "spanked my butt" multiple times and asked her what sexual positions she preferred, to a 15-year-old girl who alleged an older male co-worker repeatedly made "offensive, sexual comments" and advances.
"He said he liked my breasts and that they were 'plump,'" the girl claimed in a filing.
The official complaints are part of a campaign to pressure McDonald's to improve sexual harassment training and boost worker protections.
The Chicago-headquartered company says it has policies in place at its corporate-owned stores and will increase training.
- Economically vulnerable -
In mid-September, McDonald's workers made a very public example of their company by staging a one-day protest in 10 US cities.
They claim the company is not doing enough to address a culture of impunity for those who harass and abuse employees.
And they hope that McDonald's -- with 235,000 employees worldwide -- might have a major impact, if it gets tougher on harassment.
McDonald's workers' stories of mistreatment are not new nor limited to the burger giant.
In the restaurant industry as a whole, 40 percent of female fast-food workers say they have experienced sexual harassment, according to a 2016 survey by Hart Research Associates, a Washington-based public opinion firm.
The problem also is not confined to restaurants.
Female construction workers have alleged decades of animus and harassment from male colleagues, often in efforts to keep them away from male-dominated fields.
Women workers at a Chicago-area Ford plant have sued over widespread harassment, also dating back decades. The automaker apologized in December and promised changes.
- Modest victories -
"These workers themselves don't have the power of celebrity," said Mary Joyce Carlson, a lawyer with Fight for $15, a union-backed campaign to increase wages and workplace protections for low-income workers.
"They have economic vulnerability and they are more easily exploited than women who have celebrity or power," Carlson told AFP.
A year into the #MeToo movement, low-wage and blue-collar workers have scored some modest victories.
Among the most notable came in September, when five major US hotel chains agreed to distribute 'panic' buttons to housekeeping staff to protect them from guests who harass them -- a long-time complaint.
And, the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund -- set up to provide attorneys to workers who can't afford one -- has collected $21 million since its inception in January to help fight sexual harassment.
About 3,500 people so far have asked for help, according to the fund's director Sharyn Tejani.
The fund is representing workers in a variety of industries -- police officers and paramedics, restaurant and construction workers, and home health care providers.
"Certainly, people are feeling like they can speak up more," she told AFP. "Our intakes are not slowing down."
McDonald's employees' public campaign has put the burger giant on the defensive.
The company says it already provides anti-harassment information to workers and training for managers at its owned and operated stores. It also has a hotline for reporting complaints.
The company promised "new mandatory training for corporate-owned restaurant general managers and staff" and an updated harassment and discrimination policy with "input from third party experts."
"We take employees' safety and well-being seriously, and will not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind at McDonald's owned and operated restaurants," it added in a statement.
But McDonald's only owns nine percent of its locations. The other stores -- more than 34,000 worldwide -- are independently-owned by franchisees.
McDonald's relies on those independent operators to comply with legal requirements regarding harassment and discrimination.
Some workers have complained that there is little to no anti-harassment training at franchisee-owned stores, and little recourse if someone is abused.
Lawson, the Kansas City worker who filed an EEOC complaint, is not waiting for McDonald's to act.
She recently helped lead a worker-organized sexual harassment training session for fast-food workers employed at McDonald's and elsewhere.
The workers are planning more training sessions in 2019.
Lawson said she heard many stories of mistreatment, and many workers did not know their rights.
"I just always feel sad," she said. "It's really sad that we work for these companies, but they don't really care about us. If they cared about us, they would protect us."
© 2018 AFP