McDonald's: Is it really that bad? And was Labour right to snub it?

Labour's critics have attacked the party's controversial decision, but did they have a point? We looked at some of the key issues regarding the fast-food chain

Max Benwell
Tuesday 19 April 2016 09:40
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Fast food workers protest for higher wages outside a branch of McDonalds in central London on May 15, 201
Fast food workers protest for higher wages outside a branch of McDonalds in central London on May 15, 201

Labour has started their week with a ban, after preventing McDonald’s from appearing at their spring conference in Liverpool. The party has refused to comment on their NEC’s decision to deny McDonald’s an informational stand during the event, but there have been hints that it's to do with their employment practices.

A source “close to the Labour leader” has been quoted saying that “McDonald’s have failed every test when it comes to union recognition and decent employment standards”, although the specific cause is yet to be officially confirmed.

The ban has been pounced on by Corbyn’s critics, who have painted it as another example of him being out of touch. One unnamed Labour MP has called him a “snob”, while the conservative campaigner and columnist Tom Harris tweeted “Parents: next time you take your kids for a McDonald’s know this – the Labour Party is looking down at you.”

But what’s the truth about McDonald’s? Could the Labour NEC have had a point in banning it from the conference, or are Corbyn’s detractors right to jump to its defence? Before you jump to any conclusions, here are some of the key questions answered:

Is it a good employer?

McDonald’s employs roughly 85,000 people in the UK. But what sort of employment is it?

Last year the company was voted the worst UK employer in a Glassdoor survey. It ranked particularly badly for wages, compensation and management.

The overwhelming majority of McDonald’s employees are also on zero hour contracts. These allow for flexible working hours, but have been labelled exploitative by campaigners. Under such a contract employees are able to choose their hours, but so are their employers. This lack of guaranteed income makes it much harder to get mortgages, loans and mobile phone contracts.

But it's not as black and white as you may think – there is evidence to suggest that zero hour contracts are popular among employees. When McDonald’s offered some workers the option of being on full-time contracts last year, only 20 per cent of them opted in. However, this was one trial of 246 employees in St Helens – whether the figure is nationally representative remains unknown.

McDonald’s also refuses to recognise trade unions. This has been blamed by activists for the poor levels of worker satisfaction, and why it may have ranked last in the Glassdoor survey.

The company was also involved in a major dispute with its American workers last year, after resisting their demands to be paid a living wage of $15 an hour. McDonald's ended up increasing wages to $1 an hour above local minimum wages, although this was only for directly employed workers, and didn’t apply to 95 per cent of the staff working at franchises.

How healthy is it?

McDonald’s says that its products can form part of a healthy diet, and provides all the nutritional information for its products. It also offers salads and burgers that are under 400 calories, sells fruit at a discount price, and only uses 100 per cent beef in its burgers. It has also worked to reduce its salt levels, and recently reported that an average children’s meal contains 46 per cent less salt than it did in 2000.

However, it has still been accused of playing an ongoing role in the UK’s obesity crisis. “Many of McDonald’s meals are high in salt, saturated fat and overall calories, and many of their drink choices are high in sugar,” says Jennifer Rosborough, a registered nutritionist and campaign manager at Action on Sugar. “It is explicit about the nutrition content of their products on their website and in store, so consumers can make informed decisions. But the problem arises when people consume McDonald’s frequently, due to it being seen as a quick, affordable and often accessible meal for a busy family. McDonald’s should only be consumed very occasionally.”

Is it environmentally friendly?

The methane produced by cattle livestock accounts for 4 per cent of the UK's total carbon emissions. As a greenhouse gas, it's also more than 20 times worse than carbon dioxide. To tackle this, McDonald's has looked into lowering its cow's emissions, and has promised to start purchasing "a portion" of their beef from “verified sustainable sources”. But how much this will be is unclear, and the move has been attacked by 23 NGOs as a “fundamentally flawed” attempt at greenwashing.

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The company also pledged to eliminate any links between deforestation and its supply chain last year. It was a move generally applauded by environmentalists, but came nine years after a Greenpeace report claiming that its farming was destroying large areas of rainforest. “Fast food giants like McDonald's are trashing the Amazon for cheap meat,” said Gavin Edwards, the organisation’s forests campaign co-ordinator.”Every time you buy a Chicken McNugget you could be taking a bite out of the Amazon."

When it comes to recycling, the company does quite well. It says that almost 90 per cent of all its primary packaging in the UK is made from renewable resources, while all its takeaway bags, napkins and cup carriers are made entirely from recycled paper.

How do they treat their animals?

McDonald's says it believes in the ethical treatment of animals, and that they should be “transported and slaughtered in an environment free of cruelty, abuse and neglect”. Generally speaking, there have been relatively few scandals around how they treat their livestock.

However, they were forced to drop one of their poultry suppliers last year when a video emerged of workers at a US farm stabbing and beating chickens. Peta has also campaigned against their treatment of chickens, and runs a campaign called McCruelty: I'm Hatin' It.

What about tax?

In December the European Commission announced that it was launching a major investigation into the company’s global tax deals. The focus of its inquiry is into suspected “sweetheart deals” in Luxembourg. Campaigners claim that these have allowed McDonald’s to avoid almost €1 billion in taxes.

In its response to the investigation, McDonald’s has said: “We are subject to the same tax laws as other companies and are confident that the inquiry will be resolved favourably."

It added: “McDonald’s complies with all tax laws and rules in Europe and pays a significant amount of corporate income tax. In fact, from 2010-2014, the McDonald’s Companies paid more than $2.1bn just in corporate taxes in the European Union, with an average tax rate of almost 27 per cent.”

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