Yle probe: Former Espresso House employees describe working conditions as dangerous | News

In September, Helsinki police stopped a man entering a Metro station while pushing an overflowing trolley.

“They asked what I was transporting and where. They told me it’s not good to carry such high stacks on the subway, as it could be dangerous for other Metro users. Eventually they let me go,” says the man, who asked to remain anonymous.

The Vietnamese man was transporting buns, bagels and other products to Espresso House café locations in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Normally, transport for the Nordic region’s largest coffeehouse chain would have been done using a company van, but the driver did not show up for work. This occasionally happened due to the high turnover of employees.

That’s why the employee, who did not have a driver’s license, was pushing a trolley onto the subway.

“I once delivered products alone by subway to 11 cafés. There were no other options,” he says.

In addition to the anonymous Vietnamese shift manager, journalists from Yle’s MOT investigative reporting team interviewed two other former employees of Espresso House. They report serious problems with the chain’s central kitchen facility.

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The Nordic region’s largest coffeehouse chain has expanded rapidly in Finland since 2015. File photo of an Espresso House café at Helsinki’s Citycenter shopping mall. Image: Marika Koskensalo / Lehtikuva

To confirm their allegations, the MOT team examined a large number of photographs of the kitchen, food orders, shift lists, message threads between employees and management, work certificates and other documents.

There is no doubt that occupational safety has been compromised, MOT concludes. The level of hygiene on the premises is poor. Due to staff shortages, employees have repeatedly had to work overtime and it has often not been possible to take breaks.

Espresso House executives have been informed of the problems repeatedly, but they have not addressed them.

“In no previous job have I felt that I was genuinely in danger. Here it felt like not even my life mattered,” says Ana-Maria Albastroiu, who worked at Espresso House until the end of August.

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Ex-Espresso House workers Ana-Maria Albastroiu (left) and Linh Tran say working conditions were hazardous. Image: Jari Pussinen ja Janne Lindroos / Yle

Santtu Hellström, Country Manager for Espresso House Finland, admits that the company has experienced staff shortages and other problems, but insists that the issues have been fixed.

The people “downstairs”

Espresso House began operations in Finland in 2015. The chain, which markets Italian coffee culture and a cosy living-room environment, has since opened dozens of cafés around the country.

In October 2021, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat exposed the poor working conditions of Espresso House’s café employees. However, the MOT investigation reveals new problems that have not previously been reported.

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Food is prepared for 14 cafés in one cramped kitchen. Image: Yle MOT

In Helsinki, there is a central kitchen in the basement of the franchise’s Citycenter location, where food is prepared for the 14 cafés in the Helsinki metropolitan area. During the wee hours of the morning, workers who are predominantly of immigrant background, stuff croissants, bagels and breads and prep salads. The products are then transported around the capital to Espresso House cafés.

Real-life “Hell’s Kitchen”

“The central kitchen is like a sweatshop. There are no breaks or even time to go to the bathroom. Oftentimes I didn’t have time to eat anything. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t even have time to breathe,” says Albastroiu of her former job.

Albastroiu moved from London to Helsinki a year and a half ago with her Finnish wife. Born in Romania and raised in Belgium, Albastroiu studied film but has experience working in the restaurant industry in London. The pace in the big metropolis could be tough, yet she describes Espresso House as the worst job of her career.

As the coffee chain grew, so did the number of cafés for which the central kitchen supplied food. When Albastroiu started work in September 2020, the workload was still reasonable.

As the chain expanded, the central kitchen began preparing food for 14 cafés instead of the previous six. Additionally, they had to fill catering orders. This meant sometimes preparing more than 1,500 orders in one small kitchen, in just one shift.

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Staff report being required to prepare more than 1,500 servings daily for multiple Espresso House locations in a small kitchen. Image: Yle MOT

That is ambitious, even if the work is well organised. There were three or, at most, four employees working at a time. The workday usually started at midnight, but in many cases the shifts had to be extended. Overtime was the rule rather than the exception.

According to pay slips, the Vietnamese shift manager, for example, worked 191 hours in September, almost all of it at night. According to the shift manager, the employment contract was set for 25 hours a week.

Dangerous transport

According to the workers, the heavy workload also caused dangerous situations. Both Albastroiu and Vietnamese employee Linh Tran served as drivers who transported the food they had just prepared to cafés in Helsinki and Espoo.

Sometimes there were small accidents that caused dents in the van.

“I think all the accidents happened because people were too tired to drive,” Albastroiu says.

Messages sent between employees and management reveal a disregard for employee safety. The winter tires for the van were not replaced last winter until January, when the workers demanded it.

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Espresso House employees were ordered to drive a van without a side-view mirror. Image: Yle MOT

At the beginning of November, a driver crashed the van, knocking the side-view mirror completely off the right-hand side of the vehicle. The district manager required workers to continue driving the van, even though visibility was severely reduced without the mirror.

The manager said the vehicle would not be repaired until the insurance company made its decision to pay for the damage.

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A screenshot of a WhatsApp message from an Espresso House district manager regarding a damaged vehicle. Image: Yle MOT

Linh Tran, a ex-employee of Espresso House, was on duty two days after the accident. She found out about the absence of the van’s side-view mirror an hour before she was meant to be driving.

“I was livid. Our transport route runs through the centre of Helsinki and on the motorway to Espoo. It is really dangerous to drive without mirrors. These people are completely irresponsible,” Tran says.

Tran refused to drive. It was possible for her to do so, as the shift happened to be her last. Tran had resigned two weeks earlier.

“I have no desire to be in a financially precarious situation. Before, I’ve always looked for another job before quitting. This time I decided to resign because I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she says.

Brown tap water, poor hygiene

According to the employees, there were also serious shortcomings regarding kitchen hygiene and the workspace. None of the former employees interviewed would recommend eating the food prepared in the kitchen.

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Photos taken by former employees suggest unsanitary conditions at Espresso House’s central kitchen facility. Image: Yle MOT

The kitchen is dirty in every way possible,” Tran told MOT.

One reason for this was the water supply, which had been of poor quality for a long time. The workers refused to drink it, bringing their own drinking water from home instead. At times, the water coming from the pipe was yellow or brown. Water from the same tap had to be used, for example, to marinate red onions stuffed inside the bagels.

The kitchen pipes were renovated last autumn. This, however, did not eliminate all the problems. According to the workers, the dishwasher was only intended for washing glasses, not cooking utensils, and left dishes dirty.

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A bagel containing red onions. Image: Janne Lindroos / Yle

In general, there was often not enough time or energy for proper cleaning of the premises after a long night. The facilities were also far too small to prepare hundreds of orders.

Once, the electricity went out and the refrigeration appliances were off for hours. Freezers and refrigerators began to thaw.

“I told management, but they said it didn’t matter. The products were still used,” the anonymous shift manager says.

Food safety official “shocked”

The city of Helsinki’s food safety unit inspected the premises last July as part of an inspection of the Citycenter café upstairs.

The inspection report states that there is a need for maintenance in the downstairs kitchen and storage facilities, but the company had developed an appropriate renovation plan.

When the MOT team contacted the authorities, it was revealed that part of the truth had been obscured from them. The company had not told authorities that the downstairs kitchen is operated at night.

“This is completely new information for us,” says Mia Degerlund, team manager of the city’s Food Safety Unit.

For example, it was impossible to assess the adequacy of the premises, since the inspection has taken place during the day when the kitchen is empty.

It also came as a surprise to the authority that food was being prepared in the small kitchen for 14 cafés.

“I’m shocked,” Degerlund says.

The food authority has not had comprehensive information regarding how many products are delivered to cafés. The inspection report mentions four cafés by name.

“That sounds like an incredible amount. I haven’t been to that kitchen myself, but I can almost without doubt say that the space is too small for that kind of activity,” says Degerlund.

Degerlund says that the poor water quality may have gone unnoticed during the inspection. That is not something that inspections usually pay attention to.

“Sometimes you check to see if the faucet works, as there may also be completely inoperative faucets, but no actual tests are performed on the water. Ventilation and the like are visually observed,” says Degerlund.

Following the information received in the interview, the authority took action. A new inspection of Espresso House’s premises was carried out at the end of December.

On the basis of that inspection, the authority ordered a number of issues to be remedied. Among other things, the premises were found to be dirty and, for example, the storage temperature for feta cheese was too high.

“The premises must be cleaned immediately, and pests exterminated,” the inspection report states.

The audit also drew attention to the fact that the small space serves as a central kitchen.

“Substantial changes in operations require the processing of a notification pursuant to section 10 of the Food Act. The operator must submit a notification of the central kitchen operations to the supervisory authority without delay,” the inspection report states.

Country manager acknowledges problems

Employees of Espresso House say they had been making management aware of their issues for months. Improvements were promised, but employees said nothing changed.

“The country manager and the regional manager promised that the number of cafés for which food was prepared would be reduced. They lied to us,” the former shift manager says.

The district manager’s disregard for his staff’s safety behind the wheel was the last straw. That is when employees decided to make matters public.

They want to warn other foreigners living in Finland about what they see as a bad employer.

The MOT team asked for an interview with Santtu Hellström, Country Director of Espresso House Finland. He declined, but sent comments via email.

The country manager says that sometimes there have been minor issues with the delivery truck. In terms of the mirrorless van, he said, “If the situation you have described has happened, we regret it and take full responsibility for it. It is our responsibility as an employer to provide our employees with clear instructions regarding vehicle maintenance, necessary equipment, or winter tire changes to keep our work environment safe for everyone.”

However, according to the message threads seen by MOT, this responsibility has not been respected, for tire replacement or other maintenance.

Hellström admits that the kitchen suffers from a shortage of staff. According to Hellström, the company has been rectifying the situation since the early autumn of 2021. According to the country manager, the observation of kitchen breaks has started to be monitored daily and not much overtime has been recorded since last June.

However, employees who have recently quit tell a different story. According to former employees, the previous kitchen manager resigned in October due to severe burnout.

Any attempts to rectify the situation have come too late and few new employees have survived the job for more than a few weeks. The pay slip from September showing 191 hours also does not indicate a reduction in overtime.

Regarding kitchen hygiene, the country director refers to an inspection carried out by the authorities in July 2021. Contrary to the assessment by the authority, Hellström says the tap water is drinkable.

“From time to time, the pipes may emit iron lime, which stains the water. According to HSY’s [Helsinki Region Environmental Services] instructions, water must be drained from the tap until it is clear again and thus drinkable,” he said.

Hellström says that because the current premises are too small, the kitchen will move to a new location this spring.

https://yle.fi/news/3-12263317

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