Jordan Weissmann compares wages paid to McDonalds workers in Australia and the US, raising four interesting points.
Firstly, McDonalds (or “Maccas” if we use its colloquial name in Australia) is profitable in both low-wage and high-wage countries:
The land down under is, of course, not the only high-wage country in the world where McDonald’s does lucrative business. The company actually earns more revenue out of Europe than it does from the United States. France, with its roughly $12.00 hourly minimum, has more than 1,200 locations. Australia has about 900.
They achieve this partly through higher prices, but also through adjusting their staff structure in Australia.
The country allows lower pay for teenagers, and the labor deal McDonald’s struck with its employees currently pays 16-year-olds roughly US$8-an-hour, not altogether different from what they’d make in the states. In an email, Greg Bamber, a professor at Australia’s Monash University who has studied labor relations in the country’s fast food industry, told me that as a result, McDonald’s relies heavily on young workers in Australia. It’s a specific quirk of the country’s wage system. But it goes to show that even in generally high-pay countries, restaurants try to save on labor where they can.
They also focus on increased productivity.
It stands to reason that in places like Europe and Australia, managers have found ways to get more mileage out of their staff as well. Or if not, they’ve at least managed to replace a few of them with computers. As Michael Schaefer, an analyst with Euromonitor International, told me, fast food franchises in Europe have been some of the earliest adopters of touchscreen kiosks that let customers order without a cashier. As always, the peril of making employees more expensive is that machines become cheaper in comparison.
That is one of the primary dangers of high minimum wages: automation is used to improve employee productivity and shrink the required workforce. Shrinking the national wage bill might seem like good business sense, but if we look at this on a macro scale, reduced incomes lead to reduced consumption and falling sales.
Finally, McDonald’s have attempted to add value to their product range, moving slightly more up-market in order to capture higher prices.
McDonald’s has also helped its bottom line abroad by experimenting with higher margin menu items while trying to court more affluent customers. Way back in 1993, for instance, Australia became home to the first McCafe coffee shops, which sell highly profitable espresso drinks. During the last decade, meanwhile, the company gave its European restaurants a designer make-over and began offering more localized menus meant to draw a higher spending crowd.
If we take McDonald’s as a microcosm of the entire economy, the trade-offs and benefits (or lack thereof) are evident. Funding wage hikes out of increased prices (for the same quality products) is futile. It adds no benefit: the increased wage is eroded by higher prices. Reduced wages for younger workers simply disadvantages older workers, excluding them from certain jobs. Increased productivity — higher sales per employee — on the other hand, can benefit the entire economy.
Improved training or increased automation may increase output, but run the risk of shrinking the jobs pool — unless new jobs created in training or manufacturing are sufficient to offset this. Product innovation, on the other hand, is an immediate win, raising sales while encouraging job growth in new support industries.
How do we encourage product innovation? Higher minimum wages is not the answer. Nor, on its own, is increased investment in research and education. What is needed is a focus on international competitiveness: reducing red tape, ensuring basic goods and services such as electricity, water, shipping and transport are competitively priced, lowering taxes and stabilizing exchange rates. That would encourage the establishment of new industry locally rather than exporting skills and know-how to foreign shores. We need a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, rather than lip-service from politicians.
Read more at The Magical World Where McDonald's Pays $15 an Hour? It's Australia – Jordan Weissmann – The Atlantic.