The fast-food workers’ movement has exploded in size and reach over the past year with strikes and protests in dozens of cities. The movement seems to encapsulate rising public disgust not just with the workers’ low wages but with the entire fast-food industry, which runs on an ugly feedback loop of poverty wages, junk diets and commercial exploitation for both consumers and workers. But now the fast-food workers’ campaign has “gone global,” spreading to parts of the world where fast-food logos project a different image, one that ranges from an imperialist corporate hegemony (Manila) to a respectable career (Copenhagen). Now the “Fight for 15” activists are touring different cities to explore how fast food goes down around the world.
In recent days, American fast-food worker activists have embarked on a tour spanning eight countries to share their stories with fellow workers and exchange ideas on organizing locally and globally—mounting a populist challenge to an industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide.
Fight for 15 workers from Los Angeles, Albina Ardon and Moses Brooks, have met activists with the SENTRO union in Manila. The union is organizing a youth-led fast-food worker movement targeting McDonald’s, KFC, and the leading Filipino fast-food chain, Jollibee. The group has called out the “short-term and unprotected work arrangements” prevalent in the industry, particularly the so-called “5-5-5” temp-job system (a model familiar to many American workers), in which “workers are endlessly hired and fired every five months to prevent them from becoming permanent or regular workers.” Aiming to build a national fast-food labor organization, the workers counter the narrative that Westernization via fast-food brands marks a step up for a developing nation. They point instead to the unsavory reality of the global food system, which markets cheap treats to a poor country, to keep their workforce even cheaper.
One worker in Quezon City described an experience as a low-wage worker that paralleled the plight of her US counterparts. But she earns less than $1.50 an hour—that amounts to a fraction of the average monthly wage in the Philippines—struggling to support an eight-person household.
“I remembered when I started working, my salary was for my tuition fee, but now I cannot afford to save because even my salary cannot meet the daily expenditures of my family,” she said in a testimony to SENTRO.
In a comment to The Nation recorded by SENTRO, a young Quezon City Jollibee worker says, “Prices of electricity, water, food, transportation are rising. Our salary is not really enough to sustain our needs in the family. There were times that our salary was delayed for four to five days, and that was agonizing.” Inspired by the stories of the US activists, he adds, “The government should create pro-worker policies, not policies just for the benefit of company owners. But of course, it will [only] happen if we are able to strengthen our ranks as fast-food workers together and in solidarity among workers from different industries in the country and even the workers’ movement around the world.”