The cost of fast food meals calculated in worker wages

A McDonald's employee prepares an order during a one-day hiring event at a McDonald's restaurant on April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Hundreds of job seekers filled out applications and were interviewed at a San Francisco McDonald's restaurant during a one-day nationwide event at the chain as they look to fill 50,000 positions at stores nationwide.

The push to raise fast food worker pay in the U.S. has just gone global. As day broke on May 15 around the world this morning, fast food restaurants from the Filipino capital of Manila, to mid-town Manhattan have seen flash mobs and protest signs. Workers at McDonalds, Burger Kings, Wendy’s and KFC’s across more than 30 countries are planning actions today.

How does fast-food work in the U.S. compare to other countries? First, you need to understand how important international markets have become for the fast food industry, which has by now just about saturated the U.S. market.

Take, for example, McDonalds. Today more than 70 percent of its sales come from overseas. One of the people who rings up all those burgers and fries is Taylor McLoon, 18, a McDonald’s cashier in Auckland, New Zealand. In New Zealand minimum wage is much higher than in the U.S., and McDonald's workers are unionized.

After three years working at the company, McLoon says she now makes $14.80 an hour in New Zealand Dollars—that’s about $12.80 in U.S. Dollars. When she recently visited Philadelphia, and told some McDonald's workers there how much she earns, they were “shocked, surprised, excited,” she recalls. “A lot of the expressions were ‘Holy—‘ Something-I’m-Not-Gonna-Say.”

But in other parts of the world, the $8 an hour or so wage that many U.S. fast food workers get seems pretty good, according to restaurant analyst Peter Saleh with Telsey Advisory Group. He came up with an interesting calculation to compare wages for KFC workers in China and the U.S.: how many hours did they need to work to afford a typical meal at the restaurant that employs them.

In the U.S., it takes about an hour’s worth of wages, Saleh says. “In China, you probably have to work three or four hours to be able to afford one of those meals.”

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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