Beth Farhat

Fresh from a winning a successful campaign to stop zero contract culture at Hovis in Wigan, the Bakers union BFAWU has agreed to work with other groups to address the lack of fairness and justice for workers in the UK’s fast-food industry.

Recent announcements from these hugely profitable companies regarding their use of unpaid labour and their abundant use of zero hours contracts seem to have gone largely unnoticed in the mainstream media. It would appear that forcing workers into poverty and having them rely on benefits to pay for basics such as rent and food is quite acceptable in David Cameron’s ‘big society’ Britain.

There is a call on all of these massive, global fast-food companies to stop this shameful exploitation and instead, ensure that their employees are provided with proper contracts of employment with wages that mean they don’t have to depend on benefits in order to exist.

In America, for example, workers in the fast-food industry – many of them young workers – are getting involved in the “Fight for 15” campaign. Similar to other organising drives such as “OUR Walmart”, “Domestic Workers United” and “Warehouse Workers for Justice”.

Campaigners gathered outside McDonalds in Newcastle on the 15th February to highlight their concerns around zero hour contracts. McDonald’s aren’t known for their pro-union approach, indeed, they’re a global by-word for exactly the opposite. The USA’s transition from a blue-collar but middle-class, manufacturing economy to a service sector precariat full of – well, this is what they’re called, after all – McJobs, has seen McDonald’s overtake General Motors as the iconic employer of labour. The McJobs are temporary, unskilled and non-union. So, unsurprisingly, they pay minimum wage – at best.

So fast food workers definitely have a point when they ask for the minimum wage to be increased and proper contracts of employments. These workers are unlikely to unionise in traditional terms – their temporary contracts and atomised employment units make traditional organising difficult.

Trade unionism is often considered to be an unchanging, monolithic dinosaur, but it can and does adapt to labour market changes . Now we – and US unions in particular – need to make that shift again, and unionise a new generation of jobs.

I know young workers will always be stronger together – in a union. That’s why the TUC is now exploring the idea of a “gateway” for young workers. Not membership of a trade union per se, but a TUC-run service that offers advice and support for young people at work. Young people need unions and unions need young people, we will build an organising culture that can begin to change things for ordinary workers in the likes of McDonalds, KFC and Subway.

Beth Farhat, Regional Secretary – Northern TUC