On Byron Burgers and Consumer Boycotts

Tim Maly on how globalisation implicates us:

Something that journalists sometimes do is publish a disclosure statement. It’s sort of like an About Me page except it’s a listing of all their conflicts of interest—all the areas of coverage where you might have good reason to think they should not be trusted. It’ll say things like I once worked at Google or I’m married to an employee of Microsoft.

I have never written one of these but I have fantasies about doing a comprehensive one. It would be the length of a novel, I think. An endless and yet incomplete litany of all the blood, privilege, history, and compromise on my hands.

I am training to be a Christian ethicist. That is a kind of theologian that Christians (used to?) like to have around to tell them what to do so that they can always feel like they are doing the right thing, or at least not doing the wrong thing. It should come as no surprise to Christians that Christian ethicists cannot do this; we cannot tell right from wrong. Surely that’s one of the most interesting things that Christianity claims about the world. As the prophets, the Psalms and Paul, not to mention Jesus and 50 Cent remind us, only God can judge that.

So one of the reasons I think Christians believe they can get by just fine without theology is how unsatisfyingly “vague” are the outputs of all these ethicists at work. All the church wants to know is: “Whether communion is just a meal or does something hocus-pocus-y happen at it?”, and “Can gay people get married and if they do, can they be on the flower rota?”, and most importantly, “Where can I go to stock up on my Autumn wardrobe that is both on fleek and ethical?” We’ve been busily toiling away in the TheoLab for three years now and we do not yet have straightforward answers to any of those questions.

What even is the point?

When I say I do Christian ethics, people think that I write footnotes that validate what they think is right, or wrong, or stupid. But what I actually do is description, not prescription. I don’t produce answers. Rather, at best, I refine questions. This is very valuable work, even if it isn’t valued much. It has a use-value, even if it (currently) has a low exchange-value. But the one thing it doesn’t do is make things simpler. It doesn’t tell us the one true way to proceed. At this point it is important to remember that if the Gospel is true, we are as lost in our virtue as in our vice (See: Jesus of Nazareth, Parable of the Two Lost Sons, Bethany: Dr. Luke Publications, 30AD.) so even if I was able to tell you what is the right thing to do with the Christmas bonus that is still sitting in your bank account, it would be only a little more valuable in the eternal stakes than some bozo accountant encouraging you to invest it in East Asian online gambling firms.

I have many Christian friends who are troubled by the ethics of the things they consume. They want to have a phone that wasn’t made by slave labour and eat meat that wasn’t bred in torture and go on holidays with carbon offsets for the plane ride. I do not intend to malign such efforts, but as the Tim Maly quotation at the top of this piece reminds us, there will be no end to the deliberations involved in buying things rightly, and one thing I am pretty sure is a dead-end is spending your life deliberating about your purchases. The slippy, trickiness of sin means that even our concern for others and for justice and creation-care folds in on itself and we end up navel-gazing about adding possessions more effectively to our store of treasures.

I encountered this problem last week when I heard about the Byron Burger scandals. Byron Burger opened earlier in the year in Aberdeen and it was a cheap(-ish) place to eat a good meal. Such small events can matter when you live in a small city like Aberdeen. The restaurant was directly across from the cinema and so we fairly often found ourselves coming out of Fastly Furiousing 12 starvacious and Byron ended up as our culinary destination.

But it turns out that Byron are cruel employers. They had some staff in London, some of whom had worked for the company for years, who had come to Britain on falsified documents. When the British authorities notified them of this, Byron agreed to organise a staff in-service day which was actually just an ambush. Their employees showed up to learn new ways to wash their hands or to refresh their manual handling skills and instead they were directed into a room where they were arrested and then deported.

Now as my non-EU friends in Aberdeen will tell you, British immigration services are surely among the most obnoxious in the world. And they can prosecute companies that employ “illegals” and fine them up to £20,000! But Byron don’t actually have to go so far as to collude with the political regime. When this news broke, there were protests outside Byron restaurants and people declared their commitment to boycott the company in the future. In accordance to the Newtonian laws of contemporary discourse, when news of that outrage broke, a counter-outrage erupted which declared that Byron were doing the right thing in getting rid of “illegals” and that the leftie-hippy posers who thought that they were fighting for the rights of the oppressed were actually systemically embroiled in denying their ordinary, decent, unemployed British neighbours a chance at a job.

So who is right and who is wrong?

This problem is like every other problem in that it isn’t tractable in that way. And my point is that Christians should know this and even revel in it.

Let us describe the problem. There is language of “illegals” that we would need to consider. Christians, informed by the monumental Biblical teaching on the Stranger would query how someone can be illegal. Acts are illegal, people aren’t. We are invested in using words rightly so we might want to put a big question mark over the rhetoric upon which the broader culture constructs this problem.

There is the question of sin on the personal level, which is the angle Christians are most likely to go to first. This question takes the form of “What about the people who forged documents – weren’t they lying?” This is true and lying is wrong. But it is funny how the obvious companion sentence never appears: “What about the managers who said that it was a training day – weren’t they lying?” Also, how unfortunate are Byron? This one little company ends up with as many as 200 staff with faked papers in just 15 of their restaurants! Those conniving immigrants are obviously running an extraordinarily sophisticated con-job to pull the wool over the eyes of the HR department so successfully! Surely their cunning would have been paired with loftier criminal aims than earning the right to sweat in kitchens?

But the question of counterfeit documents brings up the question of why people from Brasil would ever want to flip burgers in London. Pondering whether or not to avoid a burger joint quickly presses us up against the profound inequalities that mark the global economy. People risk deportation and engage in illegality to work exhausting hours for minimum wage in the back of a London eatery. More than that, they leave their families and friends and cultures behind them to do this half a world away. What sort of insane system have we constructed that means that mothers in Sao Paulo say goodbye for good to their sons just so I can have a quick bite after Minions IV: The Minions Rise?

But before we are entirely swallowed up in the cavernous abyss that is thinking hard about simple issues (a restaurant boycott), we remember that this entire scenario is created by laws that are written by British civil servants and legislators. Britain is a sort of democracy (albeit with a monarchy, no constitution, a hereditary parliament and various other “historical quirks”) so those laws are made by the people voted into power by British people. Britain needs foreigners (to flip their burgers and to negotiate their trade deals now that they are leaving the EU) but Britain sort of hates foreigners. Even the British (notionally) left wing party thinks immigrants need to be “controlled”. How do you convict Byron Burgers of wrong-doing when they are part of a culture that is arguably sick with fear? They needed to avoid the fines that could come their way! What could they do? (Potential better answer: Normalise the working arrangements of their loyal staff.)

Labour immigration mug

This is to say nothing of the issue of eating animal flesh at all. In a world enduring catastrophic climate-change, our continued consumption of beef needs to be scrutinised. It is not unlikely that our grandchildren will stand agog when they hear of how happily we munched on burgers while methane-fuelled climate change flooded Bangladesh. Telling them that we were too excited by George Clooney’s turn in “Prognosis: Dinosaur” to think about what we were doing is unlikely to win us much credit.

How do we navigate our way through this morass? What thread do we pick up that helps us make sense of a mess that we know is a mess, but for the life of us we cannot put into a neat order. Christian ethicists describe the problem and in so doing, when we are lucky (read: providentially appointed), we end up with a perspective that allows us to see the possibility of a better way of doing or saying the things we are trying to do or say.

The staff who were employed by Byron on dodgy permits paid tax. The documents got them in the door, but they also got them in the system. Byron Burger, however, it appears, did not pay their tax in the same way.

The people who own Byron own companies in Luxembourg, a tax haven. Those companies lend money to Byron and charge interest rates above the market level. Byron pays back those loans in a fashion that most effectively minimises their tax burden in the UK.

The people who were deported had no aid to call upon. The people who arranged their deportation have all the aid they need. The people who were deported did not avoid investing in the common fund. The people who arranged their deportation did avoid investing in the common fund.

The people who own Byron broke no laws and the people who were deported did. After describing the situation, that sentence is loaded with surprising ethical significance.

When we describe the situation, we very often find the situation is different from what we imagined. There are problems with the language of “illegals” and there are problems with counterfeiting documents and there are problems with global inequalities and there are problems with societal xenophobia and there are problems with meat. But if we pull on the thread of the entitlement that allows one group of people to dance around the moral responsibility of paying tax – in the light of the deportations and the protests and the counter-protests – we begin to spy a way to make sense of the mess.

The people who own Byron think that the money that straightforwardly would go to pay for schools and streetlights and immigration officers is better off in their pockets (albeit in trousers hung in a wardrobe in Luxembourg). The people who own Byron have money that has freedom to travel. They can dispatch it to a tax haven over there or an investment over here without reference to permits or visas or fear of immigration control. The human beings whose labour generated that money do not have that freedom. They do not live without fear.

I am boycotting Byron and wrote a letter to the manager of the local branch to explain to them why. I am not just boycotting them because of their humiliating treatment of their loyal staff. I am not just boycotting them because I am a migrant who feels solidarity with the plight of migrants less privileged than I am. I am boycotting them because if the practices of Byron Burger were the norm, this society would be royally screwed. I’ll pack sandwiches when I go see Leaving Las Vegas II: The Return to Las Vegas.

We can’t make ourselves ethically right. But we can do what we can to make things less wrong.

Your Correspondent, Just back from Bible Camp where he was learning to be more judgemental