Friday, April 24, 2009

Youth at Work

Eric Schlosser focused his book, Fast Food Nation on Colorado Springs and the development of the fast-food market and how quickly it has taken off and taken a hold of the city along with the entire country. I found it interesting how many people work at fast-food chains and how many of those are teenagers. In 1967, there were 21 fast-food chains, now you can find just 21 McDonald’s. When you look at all of the chain restaurants, you see an exceedingly large amount of teenagers working there. Schlosser writes in his book that about two-thirds of the workers are not even 20. They open and close the store; they keep the store running. Should teenagers be allowed to work in the morning if they go to school? Or how about closing the store at night? What about school work? These are relevant issues that should be looked at.

“Instead of relying upon small, stable, well-paid, and well-trained workforce, the fast food industry seeks out part-time, unskilled workers who are willing to accept low pay. Teenagers have been the perfect candidates for those jobs, not only because they are less expensive to hire than adults, but also because their youthful inexperience makes them easier to control.” (Schlosser pg. 68) There is no skill needed anymore to make a burger; there are machines that can cook the burger and then it just pops out and waits for the worker to add the toppings. Not too difficult. These jobs have been deskilled and can therefore be filled by someone willing to accept lower wages. These jobs are also jobs that just about anyone can do, so replacing a worker is easy with very little training involved. Robin Leidner commented in Schlosser’s book that, “When management determines exactly how every task is to be done…and can impose its own rules and pace, output, quality, and technique, it makes workers increasingly interchangeable.” (70)

At McDonald’s everything is spelled out specifically in a manual and tells you exactly how to cook something and how something should be made and served. It also spells out how the workers should greet their customers and encourage the customers to Supersize their order, or to add fries with their sandwich. ‘Do you want fries with that?’ became a popular saying in American McDonald’s culture and it definitely accomplished its job by encouraging people to purchase more and thus eat more.

McDonald’s will hire anyone. It does not matter if you do not speak English. Schlosser reports that one-sixth of the restaurant workers speak English as a second language, and of those, one-third do not know English. Some only know “McDonald’s English” which means they only know the words on the menu.

In 1999, there was a conference on food service equipment and the major fast food chains were represented there. They decided that if at all possible, they should eliminate the chance of a worker messing up the food. They should make the directions at a fifth grade level and with pictures. This way, they are eliminating mistakes as well as training all in one. However, while they were spending money on advancing their restaurants to eliminate training, they were also accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for “training” their workers. (72) These subsidy programs were set up as an incentive to companies to hire the poor. In actuality, these companies were giving people part-time jobs with no training and no benefits. Fast food companies were just hiring people from a lower class to make themselves look good and get the money from the government for hiring them, but really cheating the system by not providing the employees with the help they need and the help the fast food industry can afford to give.

To increase the minimum wage by one dollar, Schlosser writes, would only increase the price of a burger my two cents. Would that be so bad? That is not much to ask on either side. Those who work at fast food chains hardly ever qualify for overtime because managers make sure they work less than forty hours a week. Some workers are there only when the restaurant is busy and they need them, but when it is not busy, the workers are sent home. A solution to raising wages that McDonald’s has taken on is called stroking. This is where you give your employees positive reinforcement to feel appreciated for their work. Often times, teenagers do not receive this at home, therefore making McDonald’s a better environment for them and in turn, they are more willing to accept the low wages.

There are negative side effects for the teenagers that are hired and being paid low wages. There is a report called Protecting Youth at Work which is on child labor and done by the NAS in 1998. It reports some obvious things that I think people sometimes forget. Having teenagers work long hours could cause negative future risks, such as their education and their financial success. It claims that teenagers who work up to twenty hours will most likely benefit from the work experience and learn to earn their own money. Those who work more than twenty hours, are likely to leave school. “Teenage boys who work longer hours are much more likely to develop substance abuse problems and commit petty crimes.” (80) Having teenagers work a lot is probably not the best bet for a child’s well being, but is the aim of McDonald’s and other fast food chains to be out there for a child’s well being? Most likely not. They are there to make money and to have cheap labor to make them the money. If kids are at work more than they are at school, then that is not a good sign. And even further, if the job proves to be meaningless to the child, then possibly they may never have the desire to find work anywhere else.

The fast-food industry gives opportunities to some people who do not have them, to get a job and to get job experience. Some restaurants may care about their employees, but as Schlosser points out – Why are fast-food chains hiring these people if they are not going to stand up for them and give them benefits or pay them more money? Schlosser says, “The stance of the fast food industry on issues involving employee training, the minimum wage, labor unions, and overtime pay strongly suggests that its motives in hiring the young, the poor, and the handicapped are hardly altruistic.” (71)

Eric Schlosser. Fast Food Nation. New York. Houghton Mifflin Company.2004.

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