Notes – a new feature I’m trialling on the blog, in an attempt to publish the occasional random thoughts which never coalesce into a concise argument with a proper beginning, middle and an end. These will be sporadic, and if I haven’t contradicted myself at least once by the end of the year then I’m probably not doing it right.
My favourite fast food restaurant in the United States without a doubt is Chick-Fil-A. If they franchised internationally and I had the spare cash, I would open one here in London and it would easily do as well as recent US arrivals Five Guys and Shake Shack.
The reason that Chick-Fil-A is so good – besides the great tasting food – is the service, which (at least in the locations I have visited) goes above and beyond what one might expect in any fast food restaurant in Britain. As you arrive, a team member is always on hand to open the door for you and give you a warm greeting. That’s nice. Then, somebody with a smiling countenance and a decent command of English takes your order, usually getting it right the first time. And while you are sitting at the table eating, another team member circulates the restaurant offering to top up patron’s drinks from the soda fountain. Not only is there bottomless soda, you don’t even have to stand up and wipe the grease from your fingers to get your own refill.
When I go to my local McDonald’s on Kilburn High Road, I don’t expect any of this. I know that the restaurant will be in a state of perpetual chaos whether it is rammed at lunchtime or if tumbleweeds are blowing through in the dead hours. I know that asking for an extra barbecue sauce is like asking the server if they will donate a kidney. I know that the person taking my order will be unfriendly verging on hostile at least half the time, and I learned the hard way the necessity of carefully examining the contents of the bag to catch the frequent mistakes in the order before leaving the store.
What has recently made my local McDonald’s much better is the fact that they have just installed the new automatic order terminals. And now, I never have to have another human interaction there again, because the computer does it for me. I never went to McDonald’s for the stellar service or pleasant dining experience, and so I am happy to interact with a machine instead of a human being.
This is what Fight for 15 campaigners and other proponents of a higher minimum wage don’t get. If the labour is not worth $15 an hour and people do not want to pay the prices required to sustain profit margins with artificially higher labour costs, employers will look to replace human labour with technology as soon as it becomes practicable to do so. Somewhere like Chick-fil-A, a more traditional values-oriented chain with a premium on customer service, can perhaps withstand the tide. But McDonald’s and most other fast food retailers can not. The price of virtue-signalling middle class campaigners taking time off from their college classes or creative industry jobs to campaign for higher wages for fast food workers is that many of the latter will be thrown onto the unemployment scrapheap. Perfectly good entry-level jobs will be lost, and the ladders to better employment which they provide destroyed, just so that Guardian readers can feel better about themselves.
Wendy’s fast food restaurant chain says it will begin offering self-serve kiosks at its 6,000-plus locations across America, making them available to costumers by the end of 2016.
The fast food giant’s decision to move toward automation comes just as “Fight for $15”–a progressive protest movement, pushing minimum wage hikes–is applying pressure on state governments to raise wages for low-skilled fast food workers.
Last August, Wendy’s CFO Todd Penegor told investors that mandated wage hikes will cause his company to pursue other innovative avenues that could lead to fewer jobs for low-skill workers.
“We continue to look at initiatives and how we work to offset any impacts of future wage inflation through technology initiatives, whether that’s customer self-order kiosks, whether that’s automating more in the back of the house in the restaurant,” Penegor said, adding that “you’ll see a lot more coming on that front later this year from us.”
On the same conference call, Wendy’s CEO Emil Brolick said that individual Wendy’s franchises “will likely look at the opportunity to reduce overall staff, look at the opportunity to certainly reduce hours and any other cost reduction opportunities, not just price.”
But let’s look at another job staffed largely by people on minimum wage – the caring industry. This is a hard job, one whose financial rewards in no way meet the stresses and challenges of the work, looking after the health and sometimes social needs of elderly people. Some people in this line of work go above and beyond the call of duty, adding infinitely more value to the lives of the people in their care than will ever be reflected in their pay packets. Why? Because we don’t care about our aged relatives, particularly here in the West.
Well, maybe that’s unfair – we do care about them sentimentally speaking. But when it comes to putting our money where our mouth is, the indifference curve between purchasing a marginal improvement in quality of life for an elderly relative and buying the new iPhone is skewed horribly against grandpa. And if we can store our ageing relatives away in warehouses staffed by well-meaning but overwhelmed eighteen year olds, eye-rollingly disinterested others with hopefully one or two saints thrown in to ensure some minimum quality of life, that’s fine by us.
We could end the sorry drip-drip of nursing home abuse scandals tomorrow if we wanted to – by giving the profession the respect that it deserves, requiring some kind of training or qualification before employees are entrusted with vulnerable human beings, and ensuring that an attractive career path is in place for carers. That we fail to do so is a reflection not on government, not on the employers, but on ourselves. We permit this to happen, each one of us.
I’ve never understood why the Fight for 15 and minimum wage campaigners chose to go to the wall fighting for the rights of burger flippers to be paid in some cases significantly more than their labour is worth, while all the time there is a population of living saints among us – the carers, people who clean up the blood (and worse) in our care homes, and provide a vital measure of compassion and comfort to people in the sunset of their lives – being paid equally poorly. I am no advocate of wage controls, but the person who goes above and beyond to provide just a moment of personalised attention to a neglected older person despite having been on their feet for 12 hours straight seems to be an infinitely better figurehead for the movement than the person who operates the deep fat fryer at KFC.
If anything, Fight for 15 is a giant abdication of personal responsibility, declaring to the world that we are too lazy or selfish to stop eating manufactured food that costs almost nothing to produce or pay care workers a pittance while still expecting them to be Florence Nightingale, and that we would much rather the government step in to artificially hike the wages of those we are unwilling to pay better ourselves. The average Fight for 15 campaigner is quite happy to continue eating cheap fast food – they just want government to assuage their guilty consciences by topping up the wages of those whose labour does not command the minimum price.
Maybe this just speaks to the sickness at the heart of our decadent, self-absorbed late-stage imperial decline-ravaged Western society – our hearts brim over with compassion for the person who remembers not to put the pickle in our 99p cheeseburger, while we utterly neglect our ageing relatives and those who care for them on McDonald’s money.
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One of the problems with the entry-level job argument is that too many minimum wage workers are not working an entry-level job. They aren’t teenagers. They are family breadwinners who have worked at the same wage or close to it ($0.15 raises are not uncommon) for twenty years.
I agree this is a real problem – I have worked at places in my career where some jobs are far from “entry level”, yet command only the minimum wage or a fraction above it. However, I tend to view national minimum wage increases as a sticking plaster solution. They help to alleviate the immediate problem at hand (working poverty) but in doing so it removes all urgency to tackle the underlying issues – low productivity, low skills, industrial strategy and all manner of other things. Much as Labour’s greatest crime from 1997 onwards was to park people on welfare and then forget about them, so minimum wage increases can sometimes be a token gesture, making it a little easier for people to get by today while only setting them up for future failure.
I want a country that actually aspires to tackle the big challenges rather than running away from them. I drone on about it too much sometimes, but I think we need the equivalent of an Apollo Program for education, we shouldn’t settle to be in the middle rankings of nations, we should aspire to be the best and then commit the effort and resource to create a workforce where many more people can perform high value-added jobs, reducing the downward wage pressure on those in lower paid or entry level jobs.
Of course, that would mean re-injecting some ambition and vision back into our politics, rather than just aspiring for decent public services and a quiet life…
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Well, when you put it that way…
I would love to see idealism and compromise and a respect for evidence become cornerstones of our democracy.
I would love for our government and policy-makers to focus on the long-term instead of the short.
I would love for us as a people to agree that we should promote a fulfilling life full of opportunity for all.
How we can get 350 million people moving in that direction, I don’t know.
The move towards automation in the fast food industry would have happened with or without the Fight for 15 movement. Evidence of the destruction of entry-level jobs doesn’t exist in the cities that have mandated a minimum of 15. An argument can be made, though, that the area’s cost-of-living ought to drive the minimum wage in that area. A wage of $15.00 in Helotes, Texas goes a heck of a lot farther than it does in Seattle, WA, for example.
I agree that if there is to be a minimum wage at all, it should be linked to cost of living by area and that (like much tax) it should be devolved to the lowest level possible
I agree: “Perfectly good entry-level jobs will be lost, and the ladders to better employment which they provide destroyed.”
A price floor for labor results in unsold labor. In essence, the $15 minimum wage “outlaws” many low-skill jobs, for example, store greeters, additional servers at Chick-Fil-A.
A minimum wage job is a stepping stone to a better job. The $15 crusaders don’t understand the concept of labor mobility.
I wrote a short post called “Why Raising the Minimum Wage Can Result in a Lower Unemployment Rate.” If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/minimum-wage-unemployment/
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