‘Do you want fries with those poverty wages?’ Global fast food workers strike out


When Gayhun Lee, a worker at a McDonald’s outlet in Yeokgok, South Korea, joined a rally in support of fast food workers around the world last September, she hoped to draw attention to wage manipulation and unsafe working practices by the company.

She didn’t expect to have her own employment contract terminated soon afterwards.

Management at the fast food franchise refused to give an explanation for terminating Gayhun’s contract, instead telling her to reapply for the job. Her application was rejected.

Gayhun had previously been warned about her union activities by the management, citing a call from head office after she’d taken part in a rally in support of fast food workers in May last year.

Now, as part of the latest action by fast-food workers worldwide on 15 April, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) are calling on McDonald’s to reinstate Gayhun and to stop union busting in Korea.

This Wednesday, fast-food employees in over 30 countries will also be protesting against poor working conditions and pay: the use of zero-hour contracts in New Zealand and UK; unfair labour practices in Brazil; unpaid or “charity” work for fast food companies in Indonesia and the Philippines; and in the United States, where it all started, workers will be protesting for an industry minimum wage of US$15.

IUF affiliates on five continents will be joining protests as part of the International Fast Food Worker’s Day, according to Massimo Frattini, the hotel, restaurant and tourism coordinator at the IUF secretariat in Geneva.

Actions and photos will be posted on social media using the hashtag #FastFoodGlobal

“The fast food industry relies on the labour of millions of workers around the world who are largely working under brands operated by few giant corporations,” Frattini tells Equal Times.

“Although many workers are young, often students seeking a part-time job to pay for their studies, an increasing number of workers are older, have dependents and need these jobs to sustain their families.”

“Sadly, poor wages, precarious jobs, absence of benefits, no social security and denial of union rights are the patterns of the global industry.”


Fight for $15

This protest is the latest of its kind. Fast-food workers took global action last May, and in December they were joined by minimum wage workers across many sectors.

The protests include Fight For $15, a campaign started by US workers supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in New York City back in 2012 before spreading to all parts of the country and then gaining momentum worldwide.

Though McDonald’s recently announced a small pay increase for employees, Fight for $15 campaigners were left unimpressed, saying they will not stop fighting until workers earn a living wage.

According to a McDonald’s press release which announced the pay rise, “McDonald’s projects that the average hourly wage rate for McDonald’s employees at company-owned restaurants will be in excess of US$10” by the end of 2016”.

But a Fight for $15 spokesperson states: “The increase applies only to workers at corporate stores, which means only about 10 per cent of the company’s US workers will see a change in their income.”

“About 1.6 million workers worldwide will get a raise of $0.”

The problem of low pay isn’t limited to McDonald’s, with employees at many other fast food companies planning to take action.

“Our whole store will strike on 15 April because we work too hard to struggle to pay our bills and put food on the table,” state a group of workers at Little Caesars in New York.

The McDonald’s wage raise followed the decision by US retail giants Walmart and Target to increase their minimum wage to US$9 an hour, which Fight for $15 campaigners say will cover half a million Walmart employees, or “456 percent more employees than are covered by the McDonald’s announcement.”

According to the US Social Security Administration, the average annual wage in the US was about US$44,000 in 2013, or almost three times the yearly income of the average fast-food worker on a wage of between US$8-US$9 per hour.

Low-wage business models in the US and worldwide are being cited as a root cause of inequality and poverty, leaving many full-time employees struggling to get by.

A study conducted by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that more than 52 per cent of fast food workers rely on taxpayer-funded public assistance programs, such as food stamp benefits or Medicaid.

This, the researchers argue, means that the government is effectively helping to subsidise corporate profits, as company employees are unable to sustain themselves without state assistance.

“The taxpayer costs we discovered were staggering,” says Ken Jacobs of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

“People who work in fast food jobs are paid so little that having to rely on public assistance is the rule, rather than the exception, even for those working 40 hours or more a week.”

But it appears that McDonald’s, for one, has begun to pay attention to the protests.
In a January SEC filing, risks to shareholders in the upcoming year included protests by low wage workers, as well as increasing public awareness of income inequality.