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16 September 2014updated 04 Oct 2023 10:35am

Fast food walkouts: how do US employment rights differ from UK conditions?

The recent wave of fast food strikes in the US has shed fresh light on the employment conditions of workers in the UK.

By Maya Oppenheim

Thousands of American fast food workers walked out of their restaurants and took to the streets at the beginning of the month, demanding a pay rise and the right to unionise. In 150 cities across the US, over 400 of these workers were arrested for protests, traffic blockades and other acts of civil disobedience. This is the seventh time in almost two years that workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and other large chains have staged national walkouts. Behind the glowing images of Big Macs and shiny shop counters, tension has been steadily rising as workers have demanded more from their employers.

Life as a fast food worker in the US is considerably bleaker than it is here in Britain. For one, the minimum wage is significantly lower, in the UK it is £6.31 and rising to £6.50 next month, whereas in America, the minimum wage is only $7.25 (£4.46) an hour: this works out at a measly $16,000 (£9,850) a year. In addition to this, American fast food workers pay considerably higher individual tax rates, while British workers do not have to pay any tax for their first £10,000 of earnings, Americans have to pay 10% tax for their first $9000. What’s more, US fast-food employers are under no legal obligation to provide health insurance for their workers.

The situation with paid maternity leave and holiday leave is no better. US employers are not legally required to pay employees for any leave after the birth of a child and nor are they obliged to pay for any time which isn’t spent at work. As a result, it is almost unheard of for fast-food corporations to pay their workers maternity leave or holiday leave. On top of all of this, fast-food workers in the US are not legally entitled to union representation. To sum up, the difference between workers in America and Britain is a reflection of much wider transatlantic differences in employment rights.

As the fast food movement has grown rapidly across the US, similar campaigns have sprung up on home soil. While, the employment conditions of fast food workers in the UK are not as poor as they are in the US, workers over here aren’t short of their own problems to grapple with. For one, the wages are low, despite the fact that the fast food chains saw sales rise to £6.9bn in 2012, the average fast food worker in the UK earns just £5 an hour, according to PayScale figures from January this year. This is because these chains employ high numbers of under 21-year-olds who they are legally able to pay less. For example, nearly half of McDonald’s workforce across the whole of Britain are aged between 16 and 21.

Another key issue is the prevalence of zero-hour contracts across the fast-food industry. In McDonald’s and Domino’s, 90 per cent of the entire UK workforce is on a zero-hour contract, while Burger King employs all of it’s non-management staff – that includes 20,000 restaurant workers – on zero-hour contracts. Subway is also heavily reliant on zero-hour contracts, according to the terms of its contract: “The company has no duty to provide you with work. Your hours of work are not predetermined and will be notified to you on a weekly basis as soon as is reasonably practicable in advance by your store manager. The company has the right to require you to work varied or extended hours from time to time”. On top of this, Subway employees relinquish their legal rights under working time regulation laws to work no more than 48 hours a week.

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Despite the controversy that surrounds them, zero-hour contracts are relatively easy to understand – the employer is under no obligation to guarantee the individual work, and the individual is under no obligation to accept work. However, the reality is not that simple. While the worker is not legally obligated to work, if they are not consistently “available” for work, they are highly unlikely to continue being called in for work – one ill-timed sick day can easily result in a prolonged lack of work.

Ben Havez* who worked at Billingsgate McDonald’s for just over two years and left in 2013, says: “You always have a niggling worry at the back of your head because you have no real job security. For all you know you could get no shifts next week. This gives all the power to the employer because they can pick and choose when they want you”. While the flexibility of zero-hour contracts might be a freelancer’s dream, the lack of financial security can be a nightmare for anyone trying to pay the bills or look after children. How can you plan ahead, look for other work or arrange childcare, if you don’t know where you are going to be working from week to week?

Nevertheless, the precarity of work lessened when Ben joined the McDonald’s apprenticeship programme and was lucky enough to be placed on a 20 hour a week contract. In spite of this, few perks came with this contract: I still wasn’t paid for any of his breaks and was forced to clock out any time he wasn’t hard at work. What’s more, according to Ben, the majority of the employees in his store were under 21: “This was a deliberate attempt to keep labour costs low”.

However, a spokesperson from McDonald’s responded by saying: “This allegation that the restaurant was trying to keep labour costs down with the majority of workers being under 21 is simply not true. In our Billingsgate restaurant, the highest proportion of employees in this age group (in any quarter over the last three years) is 29% and the annual averages are lower than that. All of our employees, regardless of age, qualify for a range of benefits including holiday allowance, employee discounts and access to a full range of training and nationally recognised qualifications.”

All in all, it seems that once you get behind the shiny counters and flashing order screens and join the chain-gang of deep fat fryers and titanic ovens, employment rights are few and far between. These low-skilled, low-wage workers can be as readily disposed of as the chicken nuggets which they produce. During a time at which job opportunities are scarce and people are desperate, fast food chains are able to bypass certain employment rights with insecure, precarious forms of labour.


*Ben Havez’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

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