May 22, 2014 6:02 pm
Even as 400 protesters rallied outside McDonald’s headquarters for a higher minimum wage for fast food workers, the chain’s pay policies generated little noise inside its annual shareholder meeting on Thursday.
A day earlier, more than 100 people were arrested for trespassing after up to 1,500 protesters descended on McDonald’s suburban Chicago headquarters, calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage and a union for fast food workers.The rallies follow recent minimum wage protests across the country amid a growing national debate over income inequality, which President Barack Obama has called “the defining issue of our time.”
But the company that has become the main target of those wishing to raise the minimum wage was asked just one question on the subject, couched in a theme that has come to dominate its recent shareholder meetings: McDonald’s contribution to childhood obesity.
While the company spends billions on marketing “to hook more kids on junk food and increase executive compensation, many of your employees can barely make ends meet on poverty wages,” said Sriram Madhusoodanan, of Corporate Accountability International, a public health and human rights watchdog.
Don Thompson, chief executive, offered data McDonald’s often provides to paint itself as a stepping stone to higher-paid jobs. Nearly 60 per cent of its employees are under age 24 in company owned-US restaurants and nearly 70 per cent are part-time workers, “many of whom are just starting out”.
McDonald’s owns over 1,400 restaurants in the US, while about 12,000 are operated by franchisees.
“Offering opportunity is a part of the McDonald’s heritage,” he said.
Critics – including employees attending rallies against the company – contend that workers would like to work more hours, but are limited because the company does not want to offer the benefits full-time employment requires.
According to a 2013 study by the pro-labour National Employment Law Project, US government programmes subsidise the incomes of about 700,000 McDonald’s employees.
Addressing the protests, Mr Thompson said: “We respect the fact that they want to challenge us relative to wages,” but added: “We continue to believe that we pay fair and competitive wages and we provide opportunities and we provide training for the those entering the workforce.”
Mr Thompson denied charges by several shareholders that McDonald’s targets children with unhealthy food, and challenged comparisons of Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel, the cartoon cigarette mascot.
“I sometimes hear . . . that we are predatory – as a parent, I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “We are people, we do have values at McDonald’s and all of us are parents.”
He noted that his children were in the audience and that they ate McDonald’s and were healthy.
Answering pre-screened questions, Mr Thompson fielded concerns that the meeting was held too early, praise from a man who started as an hourly worker and would soon become a franchisee, a request to expand the biscuits and gravy breakfast offering nationwide, and a question about whether bingo could be reinstated at the South Holland, Illinois branch.
A child also praised the company for offering entry-level jobs, and told Mr Thompson that he wanted his job one day.
McDonald’s barred media from attending the annual meeting, it said, “based on direct feedback from reporters and steadily declining media attention”.