Jim Young/Reuters

Fast-food workers kick off global labor action

Workers marched for better pay and working conditions in more than 30 countries and 150 US cities

The world’s largest protest of fast-food workers kicked off Thursday with workers demonstrating in 150 cities in the United States and more than 30 other countries. The protesters are demanding better pay in a global rallying cry against rising income inequality, continuing on the heels of an 18-month-long labor campaign for higher fast-food wages in America.

In the U.S., organizers said thousands who wanted their pay increased to $15 per hour participated in the labor action and were joined by other McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC workers in countries such as Brazil, New Zealand and Morocco, taking a stand for the first time, according to a statement from activist group Fast Food Forward, which is helping coordinate the protests.

Workers take part in a fast-food protest in Tokyo.
Toru Hanai/Reuters

Kendall Fells, leader of Fast Food Forward, told Al Jazeera that the dozens of New York City workers who walked off their jobs in November 2012 have now launched a global movement to raise the wages of fast-food workers and continue the conversation on income inequality.

“It’s a sign of the times, and people are struggling,” he said. "If we want to get the economy back on track, we need to get more money in the pockets of people. People around the country thought we were crazy to ask for $15, but now Seattle has [proposed] this."

In January, President Barack Obama raised the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour in a bid to help kick-start the economy while rewarding those companies that "adequately compensate their workers." Private sector employees receive a minimum of $7.25 per hour. Among U.S. states, minimum wages run from $6.15 at the lowest end to $9.32 at the highest.

Thursday’s protests come after the first-ever global meeting of fast-food workers last week, organized by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) in New York. Dozens of delegates from labor unions representing 12 million workers in 126 countries joined the U.S. movement of fast-food workers, which, Fells said, “created a huge sense of unity of fast-food workers around the globe.

"They are dealing with a lot of the issues workers here have to deal with, [such as] low pay, disrespect, working unpaid hours. They have been motivated by the campaign."

By expanding the campaign internationally, the IUF and Fast Food Forward are turning up the heat on McDonald’s. While its revenues are growing overseas, its U.S. fast-food sales are in a slump, according to the company's 2013 annual report.

Still, the process to organize on such a large scale has not been without its difficulties. Union leaders contacted by Al Jazeera in Morocco, Malta and the Philippines said many workers were afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. In the Philippines, Joanna Bernice Coronacion, youth coordinator of the national labor federation SENTRO, said her organization "supports the campaign for better working conditions of fast-food workers around the globe." Members of SENTRO staged flash mobs on Thursday at several McDonald's restaurants to call attention to the "rampant practices of hiring workers with low salaries, few benefits and no security of tenure," she said.

One McDonald’s worker from Manila, who requested anonymity to protect her livelihood, said her full-time job didn’t pay enough to help support her family. She said she makes around $200 per month — about 50 percent more than the average monthly income of the poorest Filipino families, and one-seventh as much as those in the richest 10 percent.   

“I need to take care of our electric bill, water bill and our daily expenses, [but] my salary is really not enough,” she said. “I still need to sacrifice my dreams for my younger siblings.”

In Europe, which accounted for the bulk of McDonald's growth and nearly 40 percent of its profits in 2013, Louise Marie Rantzau, a Danish college student who works part-time at McDonald’s, said she would support the action by taking part in a social media campaign to point at the wage discrepancies between countries.

“In Denmark, we get a good salary; we have so many rights. We’ve never heard about people who couldn’t pay their own rent when they were receiving a salary," she said. "The fact that someone employed in the U.S. can’t even pay the rent, I was just shocked.” 

Patrick Belser, senior economist at the International Labor Organization, told Al Jazeera that solving income inequality takes more than a redistribution of taxes or access to education, and that "fair wages" are an important tool in leveling income disparities. Whenever possible, collective bargaining between unions and employers should help ensure that higher wages coincide with economic growth and can meet the "demands of the workers and their families," as in Scandinavia, he said.

McDonald's spokeswoman Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem said in an email to Al Jazeera: "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."

"It’s important to know approximately 80 percent of our global restaurants are independently owned and operated by small business owners, who are independent employers that comply with local and federal laws," she added.

In March, McDonald’s agreed to pay $500,000 to workers in the U.S. who filed a class-action suit against the corporation alleging systemic wage theft. A nationwide survey released at the time by an advocacy group found 90 percent of fast-food workers reported that money was withheld from their wages illegally because they frequently had to work unpaid overtime and were subjected to other irregularities. Similar cases are pending in Michigan and California. 

Belser said "the issue of noncompliance" is significant. Commenting on the problem of wage theft, or what Fells called “working unpaid hours,” he added, "In practice you see that workers are working 10 hours [instead of eight] to get the minimum wage. It doesn't look like a violation of the minimum wage regulations, but it actually is."

Jessica Davis, a 25-year-old McDonald's worker who planned on joining a protest in Chicago on Thursday for the second time, said the series of strikes has shown her that she is “not alone in this fight.” Two thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, according to the National Women’s Law Center, and many are single mothers, such as Davis.

“There are a lot of families like myself who are struggling day-to-day, and we work for multimillion-dollar corporations,” she said. “At the end of the day we should be able to take care of our families, and not have to worry about paying the bills with a full-time job.”

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