Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, April 19 2008


WHEN PEOPLE HEAR I’m working in McDonald’s, they react with a mixture of bafflement and horror. And who can blame them? The fast-food multinational has been blamed for everything from rising obesity rates and Third World exploitation, to Morgan Spurlock’s diminished sex drive.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary is taking potshots at the company these days. It defines a “McJob” as an “unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects”, while, bizarrely, McDonald’s itself runs television ads that depict its employees being routinely ridiculed by their peers. As career moves go, then, the Golden Arches is hardly considered a golden ticket.

Recently, however, McDonald’s has launched a high profile ad campaign to challenge what it says are the outdated stereotypes that exist about its employees. The Change The Script television ads aim to challenge the misconceptions that exist about fast-food workers. (Prominent among these is “the mistaken belief that foreign nationals working in McDonald’s cannot speak English”.) The “Do You Want a Career With That?” slogan, for example, purportedly highlights the opportunities for advancement that exist within an organisation that, for the past four years, has been ranked among the Top 50 Irish Companies to Work For.

So should we be sceptical about this PR offensive? Or is it time we overcame our prejudices and started looking at McDonald’s with fresh eyes? To find out, I asked the company if I could train in as an employee in one of their branches. To my surprise, they agreed, putting me to work in one of their busiest Irish outlets, on the Kylemore Road in west Dublin. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Or then again, maybe not.

On my first day, I burst through the front doors half an hour late, the fragrant scent of Eau de Budweiser lingering in my wake. I’m greeted, not by a cheesed-off supervisor, but by a delegation of smiling McDignitaries. James Perry, the operations manager of McDonald’s Ireland, introduces me to Tan Qing Jian, the manager of this restaurant. Tan has been with McDonald’s for 11 years, working his way up through the ranks to his current position. It was McDonald’s who selected the Kylemore Road as the venue for my induction. Clearly, the branch is a showcase for what the company wants to communicate about its operation in Ireland.

The restaurant is clean and spacious. Outside, a line of cars queue for service at the Drive-Thru hatch. Inside, businessmen check their e-mails in the gleaming McCafe, while children loll about in the play area. The staff turnover here is only 35 per cent per annum, compared to about 50 per cent nationwide. (Five years ago, that figure was at 65 per cent, but the influx of Eastern European migrants helped bring the rate down.)

Perry and operations consultant Amy Coen list some of the benefits available to staff – among them access to free English lessons. It’s one long infomercial… and I have very weak sales resistance. But I can’t help wondering why, if the staff can speak English, as company advertisements claim they can, English lessons should even be necessary?

The next item on the agenda is an orientation session with my supervisor Clodagh. She outlines what is expected of employees. I ask her how much I’m going to get paid? The short answer is “not very much”. The panel accompanying this article provides an illustration of what I can expect to come home with per week. But note that those figures only apply once I’ve been trained-in to my new job.

For my first week as a McDonald’s employee, I’ll be working for only 20 hours. Plus I’m expected to pay a €30 deposit for my uniform. This means that I’ll come home with enough to pay my rent and not a whole lot more. This much-vaunted career of mine, you’d have to say, is not getting off to the most auspicious start.

After fire, hygiene and safety training (basically, don’t stick your head in the fryer and 101 other handy workplace tips), I’m finally ready to get my fast-food groove on. Clodagh informs me that I’ll be starting on something called the “BOP line”.”It stands for Bridge Operating Platform,” she winks. “Just a little McJargon for you!”

The BOP line, in my imagination, transforms from something resembling the stage at Radio City Music Hall to something resembling the deck of the Starship Enterprise. This is still exciting, though.

The reality, alas, is somewhat more prosaic. What I’m actually tasked with is making Big Macs. Veteran burger whizz Carmel (who has worked here 20 years) and Margaret (a relative newcomer, with only 17 years’ service) show me the ropes. The hothouse atmosphere of the fast-food assembly line is not for the faint-hearted. From my left, a never-ending succession of burger buns are slung in front of me.

The club and heel buns have to be squirted with 10ml of sauce, sprinkled with 3.5g of dehydrated onion particles and garnished with 15g of lettuce and a slice of cheese. Everything has to be done at speed and there are even guidelines for how far apart the two pickle slices should be placed. (“So the customer gets a taste of pickle in every bite,” Carmel explains.)

Next, two piping-hot burger patties are slotted into place and the sesame seed crown bun perched on top. When that’s done, I have to seal up the box and drop it down a chute to the till operator and from there, ultimately, into the hands of the customer. For some reason, though, the different chutes aren’t even labelled on my end, so I have to keep peeking to check that I don’t accidentally drop the Big Macs in with the Chicken McNuggets or the Quarter Pounders on top of the Fillet-O-Fish. The Big Macs are prepared six at a time, so I’m juggling 12 burger patties and 18 separate bun components at once. To make matters even more confusing, some customers throw in curveball requests for no onions or no pickles. It’s all torturously complicated for the newbie.

After lunch, I’m switched to drinks duty in the Drive-Thru, which is much more my speed. Basically, an order flashes up on a television screen every thirty seconds or so. Then all I have to do is have a Medium Sprite or Large Coke or Small Fanta, ready by the time the car comes around to the hatch. Compared to the BOP line, it’s is a walk in the park.

I chat to my fellow Drive-Thru attendants, two very nice Chinese girls called Nancy and Kika. Like most staff I speak to, they profess to be reasonably satisfied with their jobs. The camaraderie among the staff here certainly seems genuine enough. But with managers and executives keeping an eye on me, I doubt that what I’m getting here is the warts-and-all entry-level fast-food experience.

When my shift is over, I sit down again with James Perry and Amy Coen to talk some more about the training and educational opportunities open to McDonald’s employees. Nearly 70 per cent of McDonald’s employees in Ireland are foreign nationals and James is keen to stress how proud the company is of its multicultural workforce. A press release issued to publicise the Change the Script campaign goes even further, expressing a hope that the public will be inspired by the diversity on display in McDonald’s to embrace the wide variety of cultures in Ireland.

“In general,” it states “[non-Irish workers] are highly qualified, with the majority finishing some form of third-level education in their home countries. They come to McDonald’s in the first instance as they are aware of the brand from their home countries – they stay because of the training they receive, the fact that they are looked after and the career opportunities that arise for many of them.”

A much more likely explanation, however, for why foreign migrants make up such a high proportion of McDonald’s employees would be that, by and large, they are the only people willing to do what remains essentially an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects. The 70 per cent statistic is much more likely a symptom of global inequality, than it is some philosophical commitment on the part of McDonald’s to diversity in the workplace. Certainly, it seems disingenuous in the extreme to claim that foreign university graduates are attracted to the fast-food industry for the training they’ll receive – training in areas such as food hygiene and team building.

This isn’t to blame McDonald’s for all the inequities of global capitalism, you understand, but simply to point out the gobsmacking cynicism of their current advertising campaign.

Operations manager James Perry lets slip something very interesting before I leave. He admits to me that the company is not having any problems meeting recruitment targets at present. So why the expensive recruitment campaign, I ask? It’s not a recruitment campaign, he explains. It’s a PR exercise. (This is subsequently confirmed by a call to the company’s press office.) The ad campaign, Perry explains, is not aimed at potential McDonald’s employees. It is aimed at potential McDonald’s customers.

My day as a burger boy in McDonald’s Kylemore has come to an end and I’m grateful to the staff all for the hospitality they have shown me. I’m not convinced that a career in McDonald’s is right for me. But, by the same token, I doubt they’ve been too impressed by my unshaven appearance and lousy timekeeping. It is by mutual consent then, amicably reached, that we agree to discontinue my employment.

Now does anyone need their air conditioning fixed?


New McDonald’s employees in the Greater Dublin area are paid the rate of:

Under-18: €7.06 per hour

18-or-Over: €8.82 per hour

Full-time employees usually work (but are not guaranteed) 36 to 37 hours per week. Therefore, as a new adult employee, my weekly budget is likely to be:

€8.82 x 37 = €326.34 a week

Tax = Nil

Net weekly income = €326.34

Less rent – €90.00*

Less transport – €10.00

Total = €226.34

After 12 months in the job, employees receive a performance rating that determines their hourly pay increase:

35c – Outstanding

25c – Excellent

20c – Good

0c – Unsatisfactory

*Average weekly rent for a single room in Dublin West, as per Daft.ie

© 2008 The Irish Times