The fast food industry is a source of employment for thousands of young people. The life of a fast food worker usually means casual hours, low pay, workplace bullying, and unsafe work practices. Due to the decline in industries such as manufacturing more and more workers are being employed in the service sector. This growing sector is dominated by a handful of powerful multinational corporations who are determined to aggressively drive down production costs in order to boost profits.
One way that they reduce production costs is by employing young people and paying them low wages. Another way is by employing most of their staff on a casual basis. This saves them money by not having to pay out holiday pay, sick pay and all of the other benefits permanent staff enjoy. About 27% of the Australian workforce is employed on a casual basis, but for young workers the figure is much higher at about 60%.
Recent research has shown that more than one in three fast food workers have experienced violence or bullying at work including sexual harassment and even assault. One in ten were paid less than the legal minimum wage and almost one in four were not paid for attending staff meetings as is legally required. Around one in three fast food workers worked very long shifts of 11 hours or more while more than half had worked shifts longer than 8 hours. Nearly one third were not adequately supervised to ensure health and safety instructions were being followed.
Howard’s new industrial relations laws will only increase the vulnerability of young casual workers by removing award protections and encouraging individual bargaining. The new IR laws will mean that very few young workers will be in a position to “bargain” with their boss and they will feel even less confident about raising occupational health and safety concerns for fear of losing their job.
The situation for fast food workers is shocking but what?s the solution? The creation of low paid casual jobs in the fast food industry is only a relatively recent development. It is not unusual to see high levels of exploitation in new and expanding industries when they first develop. This was the case in the mining, textile and manufacturing industries. The reason other industries have been able to achieve better wages and conditions is by building fighting unions and bargaining collectively to force these greedy multinational companies to pay higher wages, improve conditions and to provide workers with some security in their lives.
Whilst there is a union that covers the fast food industry, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), it does not adequately represent its members. It is a weak union that prefers to cosy up to the bosses instead of fighting for young peoples’ rights at work. Young people can?t leave it up to weak unions like the SDA to organise workers in the fast food industry, they need their own fighting organisation.
UNITE has been campaigning for young workers rights since 2003 and will soon be announcing a new initiative to organise workers in the fast food and retail industries.
By Anthony Main