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America's Terrible Fast Food Pay Has Gone Global, And Workers Are Fighting Back

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Fast food workers from around the world protest in front of a McDonald's in New York on May 7, 2014.
Fast food workers from around the world protest in front of a McDonald's in New York on May 7, 2014.

“It’s nice to see a little bit of America here.”

That’s what Sherry Shipley, an American expat living in Vietnam, told USA Today upon the arrival of the country’s first-ever McDonald’s a few months ago.

McDonald’s and other fast food eateries manage to export that little bit of America to countries around the world thanks to standardized processes and specially delivered ingredients, Princeton economist Orley Ashenfelter explained in a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The precision lets McDonald's ensure its burgers and fries “all really do taste the same” no matter where you're eating them, Ashenfelter noted, quoting Thomas Friedman's recent book The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

But the Golden Arches and other fast food eateries abroad share a secret ingredient other than just their trademark American comfort food: low-wage work. In the U.S., fast food has the largest gap between CEO and average worker pay of any industry. And pay for fast food workers abroad is similarly low when compared to that of the CEOs of these international companies (or the countries’ top wage earners for that matter).

“It’s a very prescripted kind of system, so labor is the one area where you can save the money," Tony Royle, a professor at the Bradford School of Management in the U.K. and the author of Working for McDonald’s in Europe and Labour Relations in the Global Fast-Food Industry. "They’re constantly looking for the way to have the lowest possible labor costs.”

As this particular brand of American inequality continues to spread throughout the world, so too does the unrest associated with it. On Thursday, fast food employees in countries ranging from Brazil to the United Kingdom to Japan plan to protest their employers as the movement that’s gained steam over the past year in the U.S. goes global.

Regardless of country, many of the workers’ demands are similar, according to Massimo Fratini, the global fast food coordinator for the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Association. They want higher pay and less erratic scheduling. In the countries where unionization for fast food workers isn’t the norm, they want that, too.

“(Fast food restaurants) make a point of being the same wherever you go,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University. That applies both to the food and to the “low-wage model” that dominates the back of their kitchens, she said.

“They created the model and then exported throughout the world,” Fratini said.

The result is that fast food wages are universally pretty low wherever you go. In regions like the U.S. and Western Europe, workers earning “McWages” tend to fall on the lower end of the wage spectrum, Ashenfelter, who compared the pay of McDonald’s workers around the world, found in his research. In countries where the prevailing wage is already low, McWage earners tend to be more typical.

“The guy in China who makes your iPhone makes $2 per hour, the McWage is maybe a third less,” Ashenfelter wrote in an email. “This is probably true in the U.S. also, but the wage for making an iPhone is probably $15! It is a shock for many to see how low the wages are in poor countries.”

In a statement, McDonald's said the company offers "benefits and competitive pay based on the local marketplace and job level," adding that McDonald's and its franchises have a history of providing career advancement.

"This is an important discussion that needs to take into account the highly competitive nature of the industries that employ minimum wage workers, as well as consumers and the thousands of small businesses which own and operate the vast majority of McDonald’s restaurants," the statement reads.

It’s likely that America will continue to export its particular brand of inequality at an even faster clip going forward. Companies from Yum! Brands, the parent of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, to McDonald’s are relying on international outlets to drive growth as they’re plagued by lackluster sales at home.

“Fast food companies have basically saturated the U.S. market, and so their major growth opportunity and expansion is abroad,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Center. “When [fast food strikes] are happening abroad, it’s a really more powerful statement to these companies that are really relying on growth abroad.”

One thing countries can do to shield themselves from this American-bred form of inequality is to push for policies that the U.S. doesn’t have. A Danish McDonald’s employee who spoke to the Associated Press about the fast food worker movement said she’s paid $21 an hour thanks to a collective agreement between McDonald’s and workers. In Australia, where the minimum wage is 16.37 Australian dollars per hour (which equals about $15.50), adult McDonald’s workers earn at least that.

"The only places where you’ll find it's a bit different is where the trade unions have managed to get collective agreements, and in those countries the conditions might be a little bit better," Royle said.

Here in the U.S., the declining power of unions combined with a minimum wage that’s lower in real terms than it was in the 1960s means that even as more breadwinners and adults take on low-wage jobs, the jobs will stay just that.

UPDATE: Protests began across the globe Thursday, and Twitter users posted photos from all over the world, some of which we've embedded below.

Curitiba, Brazil Tokyo, Japan New York City, NY Chicago, IL Hong Kong Boston, MA Amsterdam, Netherlands Mumbai, India St. Louis, MO Detroit, MI London, UK Geneva, Switzerland Manila, Philippines

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