'McJobs', Student Attitudes to Work and Employment Relations in the Fast-Food Industry

Article excerpt

Fast food is a major source of jobs for youth, and these jobs are often characterised as 'McJobs'--low-grade, unskilled, unpleasant and poorly paid. However, it has long been recognised that the technical and social relations of work can be complex and contradictory. This article reports on the results of a survey of university students working in fast food. Our research indicates that while some find aspects of fast-food work unpleasant, a significant proportion also have positive responses suggesting that fast-food jobs can be interesting and socially rewarding. The results may explain a conundrum whereby young people perceive the positive social aspects of fast-food work as outweighing the negative factors, which are highlighted in some of the literature.

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A dominant shift in the Australian as well as the US and UK labour markets over the past two decades has been the growth in importance of contingent and nonstandard forms of employment (Felstead & Jewson, 1999). A traditional view of the youth labour market was that young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have always needed to work (Mizen, 1995); however, by the mid-1970s, there was a growing trend for young people from the middle class to be found in the part-time or casual labour market (Griffin, 1985; Lucas & Ralston, 1996, 1997). There is growing debate concerning the quality of these jobs, with part-time and casual jobs increasingly becoming associated with precarious forms of employment (Burgess & Strachan, 1999). At least in Australia, young workers appear to dominate the fast-food industry labour market.

Multinational corporations (MNCs) operating in fast food are dominated by household names such as McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Taco Bell and others. These food giants are significant employers of labour and their global employment practices have attracted increasing scrutiny (Royle & Towers, 2002). For example, McDonald's, the world's largest fast-food restaurant chain, has more than 30,000 restaurants and more than 400,000 employees worldwide.

The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary included the word 'McJob' in the 2003 edition, despite McDonald's objections, defining it as 'a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement'. Hence, a relatively new term arising from fast-food work has now been coined. Nevertheless, the role of young people working in fast food remains an underresearched area of youth employment (Lucas & Ralston, 1997).

Fast-food companies in Australia are a major employer of youth. McDonald's, for example, employs approximately 66,000 young people in 441 stores. This article reports the findings of a survey of university students with fast-food work experience. We asked them questions about their attitudes and experiences. We were interested in their views about whether fast-food jobs were 'good jobs', what aspects of this work they liked and disliked, and how they felt about their treatment by management. Our aim is to contribute to the debate about youth employment by increasing understanding of work in fast food beyond the rhetoric of critics who tend to argue that fast-food work is a low-grade and distasteful form of employment.

The Research Context

To explore views about young people working in MNC and domestic fast-food stores, we examine fast-food work in a broader context. First, there is a growing interest in comparative human resource management (HRM) strategies and practices. Researchers have been increasingly concerned with understanding the context in which MNC employee relations practices are diffused and their impact on domestic labour regulatory regimes (Bamber, Lansbury, & Wailes, 2004). Particular attention has focused on the employment relations/ HRM policies and practices of MNCs and the impact of globalisation. MNCs are complex organisations that are large employers of labour (Ferner & Quintanilla, 1998, p. …