Treat this as a story about a giant company, if you want, or about an entire rotten system. But to me it comes down to a teenager, Tyrone. I wish you could see him: 17, an open, trusting face, and smaller than his claimed 5ft 7in.
A couple of days ago Tyrone showed me his home. We walked out of Cambridge station, past the new parade of smart takeaways and into a housing estate, through a front door, along a corridor full of plump plastic bags, and upstairs to his mate’s bedroom. Then he pointed to the floor at the foot of the bed – and a deflated air mattress.
Home, for a homeless person.
He has been sleeping here for the past few weeks. The mattress was donated, and it’s already got a puncture, so he has to wake a couple of times each night to blow it back up. Still, “it does the job”. Sharing someone else’s bedroom isn’t too bad, until his mate’s girlfriend comes over and they need some time alone. But it’s a lot better than the park bench Tyrone (I’m leaving out the surname to prevent Google defining his adulthood) slept under before.
He told me this on a day off between shifts. Because through all the rough sleeping and sofa-surfing, he has been employed by one of the biggest and best-known companies on the planet.
Tyrone works at a local McDonald’s. If you live in Cambridge, he may well have served you your Happy Meal. He comes in from another night on the carpet and handles all of it – the kitchen heat, the impatient queues, the constant aggro – for up to eight hours a shift, four shifts a week. “I’ll come home and my T-shirt is dripping wet from the sweat of working at McDonalds.”
All for £4.75 an hour, a touch above the legal minimum for a worker his age. Under Britain’s minimum-wage rates, an employer can get away with paying someone of 17 as if they need almost half as much food or clothing as a 27-year-old – even while making them work side by side.
Tyrone left his unhappy family home a few months back. However hard he slogs, those wages from McDonald’s will not put a roof over his head, or enough food on the table. The restaurant worker often has to skip meals. He certainly can’t go out. What he has instead is depression, and bad pains in his kidneys and liver that mean he sometimes clocks on after a night at A&E.
Older colleagues aren’t much better off. Twenty-four-year-old Tom works full time at the same McDonald’s for £7.55 an hour. The money isn’t enough for him regularly to visit his four-year-old, Zac, who lives with his former partner west of London. The choice is stark: either he misses seeing his boy grow up or he skimps on food. To be a father, he sometimes lives on one meal a day – the one he gets free from his employer.
When I put this issue to McDonald’s UK, its press office said: “We have committed to investing in our people, from great training and development opportunities, to competitive rates of pay.” It added: “We have also never used exclusivity clauses, so if our people want the flexibility to work with other employers they have the option to do so.” Which sounds like: our people should work two jobs.
Tom and Tyrone know what their ghostly critics will say: if it’s so bad, they should quit and go elsewhere. But as Tom points out, most jobs on the high street are now like this. I have written before of how homeless shelters in London now serve as dormitories for the low-paid, zero-hours army that get up in the morning and serve your grande lattes and sandwiches. The problem isn’t one company, but the system of which it is part.
McDonald’s is flush with cash – it just doesn’t give much to the people who actually earn it. Instead, the company prides itself on handing money to its stockholders. The firm’s own investment calculator shows that if you’d bought 1,000 shares on the day Tyrone started working there – 1 December 2016 – by now you’d have racked up a gross profit of £34,025. A whopping 37% return simply for sitting on your backside. Granted, you’d need big savings in the first place to buy that many shares, but as Thomas Piketty could tell you, that’s how capitalism works – the lion’s share goes to those who already have the lion’s share.
Working flat out over those same nine months, Tyrone would have earned a maximum of £7,410. He and his colleagues scald themselves to earn the profits that are pocketed by people who never go near a grill or an overflowing toilet. The wealth of McDonald’s shareholders is built on the poverty of its workers.
Among those shareholders is company boss Steve Easterbrook, who last year took a total pay package of $15.35m (£11.82m). Assume, for the sake of argument, he does a 40-hour week: that works out £5,684 every hour – 1,196 times what Tyrone makes. While Tom agonises over whether he can afford the train down to his son, Easterbrook gets personal use of the company aircraft. The hospital that Tyrone depends on runs on taxes – yet McDonald’s is under investigation from the EU for running a complex tax avoidance scheme that, it is alleged, saved it over €1bn in tax.
The professionally earnest in academia or thinktanks often turn inequality into an abstraction – something to do with globalisation or technology. But it is not abstract. Inequality has hard edges and they hurt, such as when poor people are forced to starve so that the wealthy can gorge themselves.
None of this is lost on Tom. “Each of us is pushed harder and harder to generate profit.” He and Tyrone can tell you what that looks like. Shifts changed from hour to hour. When they ring in sick, managers will tell them to come in anyway. Both men allege endemic bullying in their store. Tyrone a store manager gripping his arm so hard that his nails went through his T-shirt, before dragging him off to the storeroom, away from the security cameras, to be screamed at. McDonald’s UK says: “We do not comment on individual HR cases, but would … take any accusation seriously and investigate accordingly.”
Which is why Tom and Tyrone are about to make history. On Monday, they will be part of the first ever strike at McDonald’s UK. What they want is wages of £10 an hour, and union recognition. What they want, says Tom, is “respect” from a company that they feel shows them none.
It will be a small strike, but it is nonetheless remarkable for two reasons. First, it is a globalised industrial action, influenced by the Fight for $15 in the US – even down to the strike date of 4 September, US Labor Day – and the successful campaign by fast-food workers in New Zealand to ban zero-hours contracts. Activists from both those fights have flown in to advise their British counterparts. McDonald’s is an emblem of globalisation; now the protest against it is globalising too. Second, it is one of the first industrial actions that is distinctly Corbynite in character. At the last election, the Labour leader suggested that workers of all ages should be entitled to £10 an hour – his proposal is now the McStrike’s demand, and he and John McDonnell have met the strikers.
Tyrone starts talking about what £10 an hour would do for him. “It’d mean I could get a proper bed. It’d mean I could get out of my mate’s house. That’s all I want: a place and a bed, and I’d be sweet as sugar.” Such basic things. Such fundamental things. Yet, in one of the richest societies in history, the young now have to strike to get them.
• Aditya Chakrabortty is the Guardian’s senior economics commentator