Do You Want Fairness With Those Fries?

Colette Murphy is the Executive Director of the Atkinson Foundation.

McJobs. For years, the fast food industry has been almost synonymous with jobs that are poorly compensated and offer little opportunity for advancement.

Changing the Conversation

Recent reports of McDonald’s franchises allegedly abusing Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program have, for many of us, reinforced a sense that labour practices in fast food are far from acceptable. The national debate so far has failed to really examine the structural causes of the good job shortage, the growth of low-wage, precarious work and the lack of pathways to full citizenship for migrant workers. As the Workers’ Action Centre points out, we need to change the conversation from blaming or excluding some workers to creating good jobs for everyone.

Professionalizing Fast Food

Two other stories about the fast food industry have also caught my attention recently.

From the first, I learned about the U.S. restaurant chain Chipotle’s “restaurateur” program, an incentive system designed to encourage staff development and promotion from within—starting from the company’s entry-level, minimum-wage positions. As Max Nisen writes, the restaurateur program is “is unique among fast food restaurants in that it ties pay and promotion to how well you mentor people, rather than store sales.”

The second was a recent post from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ David Green, about In-N-Out Burger, another fast food chain. In-N-Out’s staffing needs are similar to McDonald’s but the former “runs on a model with higher wages, benefits, and chances to move into management – a model that has been called ‘professionalizing fast food.’” Green explains that In-N-Out remains profitable because although it spends more on wages, the costs are offset by savings from lower staff turnover.

I was struck by these stories not because either offers the solution for the growing inequality, the decline of job quality, or the rise of precarious employment that concern us at Atkinson. I noticed them because we are often told that low-quality work is inevitable—that we can either let market forces run their course or interfere disastrously.

Choosing to Do Business Differently

In Chipotle and In-N-Out, however, we find two successful, for-profit firms—competing for staff in an industry where they are not compelled to compete very hard—simply choosing to do business differently. Instead of making disposable fast food labour a self-fulfilling prophesy, they try to hire good people and then try to keep them. As Green points out, the businesses are profitable and the staff are better off. So why not?

Work is complex. It exists at the intersection of people’s economic wellbeing, their sense of purpose, their contributions to family and society, and even their health. This complexity can sometimes be daunting for those of us who are committed to shaping and realizing a vision of decent work.

But that same complexity can also be encouraging. It means that there are many points of entry and many ways to construct decent and sustaining work for more people. Decent work is not just something for businesses, unions and governments to think about, but for all of us—as civic economic actors —to create together.

Decent work can be business as usual if we want it to be.