From New York to Karachi, fast food workers are putting down their spatulas and picking up their placards today in a global effort to improve salaries and working conditions.
But it’s a movement that you likely won’t see repeated soon in Cambodia’s quickly expanding fast food scene, where workers say they are paid more than many of their counterparts in other industries and enjoy flexible schedules.
“I make a salary of $150 per month,” one worker said yesterday between serving fountain drinks to customers at a branch of BB World, a Cambodian-owned chain that serves chicken and burgers. Like the garment and other unskilled labour positions, she added, employees do not need much knowledge or experience upon entering the field.
Since the quick meal concept arrived in the Kingdom – taking off in 2008 when KFC became Cambodia’s first major international fast food restaurant – there has never been a strike at one of these eateries, said Sar Mora, president of Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation.
“Their [salaries] are better than traditional restaurants,” he said, noting that staff at traditional restaurants typically earn between $50 and $70 per month before tips. “For the fast food restaurants they get [at least] $75 to $100.”
Mora, who has been trying to unionise fast food restaurants in Cambodia for about four years, said most of the roughly 1,000 workers in the industry are students who require flexibility in their work schedule to allow time for studying.
Globally, restaurants have been repeatedly named and shamed for paying wages so low that employees who work excessive amounts of overtime can sometimes still not earn enough to support themselves. McDonald’s famously made headlines last year after launching an employee budget website that showed workers would actually need a second job and to pay no utilities to live on their salaries.
But a number of fast food workers told the Post yesterday that they were paid more than workers in many of Cambodia’s garment factories – the country’s largest industry.
Part of the lure of fast food work is the opportunities it affords workers with no education or trade skills, said Brian McDonough, a senior consultant for California-based consulting firm Synergy Consultants.
McDonough, who argues that fast food work at the hourly level has always been intended as an income supplement, said the industry provides an opportunity for people with no marketable skills to enter the workforce and work their way up.
Others, however, see problems with the industry in Cambodia.
While some workers may earn more standing behind a cash register in an air-conditioned burger joint than others make operating heavy machinery in a sweltering factory, their working conditions are still far from optimal, Mora said.
Like their counterparts working in factories, many fast food restaurant employees work a great deal of overtime and fear being dismissed if they utter a complaint or show interest in introducing a union, he added.
“Workers in this industry, they think they have a good job and they’re afraid of losing their jobs, so they don’t bother organising,” said Mora, pointing out that few workers receive the $160 salary a Ministry of Labour working group last year deemed to be a living wage in Cambodia. “When we look at their salary, they’re still not in very good living conditions.”
Less than 1 per cent of Cambodia’s fast food workers have actively shown interest in unionising the industry, with fewer than 100 thus far joining the effort, he said.
A five-year veteran at KFC who is part of that minority told a Post reporter yesterday that most of his co-workers fail to see the long-term benefits of bringing a union into the fold. He asked not to be named for fear of reprisal at his job.
“I think that unions are very important,” the KFC employee said. “We want to create a union in fast food restaurants because we think that a union can help us when we have any problems with working conditions.”
Officials at KFC, Dairy Queen, Burger King and multiple local chains either declined to comment or did not answer questions from the Postby press time.
In what is a newly burgeoning industry in Cambodia, few have rocked the boat with demands, said Dave Welsh, country manager for labour rights group Solidarity Center. But even though workers earn comparatively high wages and typically in better conditions than workers in other fields, Welsh predicts they will eventually begin pressing for more.
Employees at all 18 Caltex petrol stations in Phnom Penh began picketing on Monday. The cashiers, service staff and cleaners, who earn between $110 and $130 per month, are demanding a raise to at least $160 and an annual $160 bonus.
Welsh believes workers at fast-food restaurants will also one day ask for working and salary conditions matching those outlined in Cambodia’s Labour Law.
“I expect what you see at Caltex is something you’re going to start seeing in every industry,” Welsh said. “The fact that it hasn’t happened yet [in fast food], I think, doesn’t speak to the benefits the restaurants provide, I think it more speaks to how new they are.”
Franchises of international chains in Cambodia will likely face additional pressure, since they must meet standards set by corporate offices overseas, Welsh said.
But corporate oversight is what McDonough believes will make industrial action unnecessary. Because fast food chains set standards as well as requiring reports and inspections, McDonough said, franchisees under their name must operate at a certain stature or risk losing the franchise.
In any case, the Food Service Workers Federation will continue waiting in line for its place in Cambodia’s fast food industry as long as workers there are voiceless.
“They feel that they cannot complain,” Mora said. “That’s why they feel really not comfortable in organising.”