Being a McWorker in Germany, 2002

One worker's account of being a McDonalds employee in Germany, with information about the workforce, the atmosphere and issues facing the workers.

Submitted by Steven. on November 13, 2006

What is McDonald's?
McDonald's is used by some people as a symbol of 'evil multi-national American imperialist culture'. But in reality it only has a different face from any other employer. Working for wages IS exploitation, be it in McDonald's or an organic bread shop. Although some say that working for McDs is especially bad in terms of supporting multi-nationals, almost all companies are tied into 'global economy' through production, supplies or sales. In contrast to this, working for McDonald's can lead to possibilities for the world wide workers struggle in a two ways:

1. Where I work, almost all the workers are immigrant workers, who live in isolated communities to a greater or lesser extent and sometimes have contact to their home countries. At McDonald's they meet each other, share experiences and stories of life in Germany, of life back home, of why they are here and the situations in their home countries. This multi-culti image that McDonald's likes to have in its adverts is perversely true, due to the limited opportunities for immigrants in the German labour market. So they are international in both senses, the company goes all over the world, and once there they bring together people who have had to move around the world themselves. Oh yeah - and then of course there is the international promotions such as Asia week!

2. When you have an international company, with the same work conditions, work processes etc. - you also have a great opportunity for international workers collaboration, struggle, connections. The McDonald's Workers Resistance web site is a fantastic example of this with letters, stories, reports etc from all over the world. ( Or, for example, some of the people where I work had heard about the Paris McDonald's strike, and can identify with it, and see that although it seems impossible to struggle where we are - other have, and they have won. It is so much easier to see what I have in common with a Chinese McDonald's worker, than a Chinese person working in family-run restaurant in Kumming. Actually, all three of us are exploited in much the same way, and are wage dependent - but it is just so much easier to imagine communication and joint struggle with the Beijing McDonald's worker. There would be a really clear point to it, and we could have a common starting point to struggle together. There is an anti-McDonald's day on October 16th (originally instigated by the anti-McDonald's lobbies) and there are plans for international workers action. Wouldn't that give them a fucking scare!!

In order to struggle together we need the to share information about our work and our situations. This report is from my experience of working in a German McDonald's, 2002. There is a description of the work and the method of exploitation, then what kind of other people worked there and how they coped with it, then some stuff about the current areas of tension, followed by food horror stories.

Being a McWorker
This has to start with the 'interview'. This consisted of the three tough questions: "What is your name", "What country do you come from" and "do you have a work permit". I guess my answers must have been OK, because I got the job. My induction was being shown where the uniform is and then taken directly to the McFryer.

Specification and tools
The first thing you notice is absolute specificity of the job - the tools, the work process and the actual food. Each food item has its own machine. There is one toaster-grill for each kind of bun, and one fryer for each kind of burger. This is not to do with the food itself, as the heat and size of the toaster are pretty much the same, but rather to do with ensuring a smooth work process - in this way it seems more like a factory than a kitchen. These machines all beep when the time is up and the burger fryers lift their lids automatically. You are also told to do things in a particular order, so the work process for each step is very defined. As each McDonald's is exactly the same, the speed is set by international standards, which makes setting a slower pace for yourself and other workers a bit harder.
The machinery is in some ways highly evolved, or you can see that it has been made exactly right for its particular job through trial and error, the actually speed and ease of each task is maximised - e.g. the Big Mac bun toaster. But the standardisation also makes things quite simple e.g. the same trays are used in the whole kitchen and everywhere you can click them into these little slots. Normal multi-purpose kitchen tools are not to be found. The uniforms have no pockets - this is to stop us steeling, but also just shows how slick each step is - there no need to carry anything, it is all there right where you need it. And the product is so set, that you are never going to have to do anything else.

The area is laid out for maximum efficiency and minimum movement by the worker - for example the buns, toaster grill and trays all being one on top of the other. If you forget exactly how many gherkins go in a McRib, there are signs everywhere with words and pictures telling you.

My McJob
I work in the kitchen - my area is one meter wide and four meters long (fryers on one side and 300 degree open grills on the other), but I mostly work at one end, in a one-meter by two-meter area. This is the Burger, Cheeseburger and Big Mac area. In busy times there are two or three of us in this two square meter area. The grills have large lids - also hot - that open to a 45-degree angle, so any time you put burgers on the grill, or take them out, you are inserting your hands into this heat monsters mouth. A frozen burger that would take about 15 minutes to cook at home takes 45 seconds here.

One work step, of about 1 ½ to 2 minuets, could be making 12 cheeseburgers: 1. Lay out cheeseburger buns on tray and put bun bottoms in specific cheeseburger-bun-bottom-toaster. 2. Put burgers on grill 3. Put bun lids in cheeseburger-bun-lid-toaster 4. Take out buns and with BOTH HANDS, one squirt of ketchup+mustard from the special McDispencer, onions (6oz), gherkin (1 slice), cheese (1 slice) 5. Move the whole tray and click it into the slot in front of the grill - by which time the grill automatically opens. 6. Put hands into grill to salt and then remove burgers, two at a time and put on bun bottoms. At this moment the lid-toaster beeps and you slide the 12 lids onto the 12 burgers in one swift movement and then give the whole tray to the 'controller' for wrapping.

Everyone who works there has burns and burn scars from their fingers to half way down their forearms, the longer they have been working, the deeper and more permanent the scars - but, showing me his creamy white and spotless arms, the manager assured me not to worry as "They go after a while".

The division of labour
The labour is further divided again and again as required. E.g. I can do the burger, cheeseburger, Big Mac bit myself. When two people work at the cheeseburgers then one does roles and laying out burgers and the other does fillings and taking burgers off the grill. If there are three then you get a role person, a burger person and a fillings person. So in busy periods it splits and splits, until it finds its own equilibrium.

There are signs in some areas that say how the division should be further split, for example by the drive-in area there is a chart defining the jobs that each person should do from one to five workers, including a map of where exactly they should stand.

Within the kitchen team we decide ourselves out who is doing which end, but the boss says which overall area you work in.

As each step is so defined and each food item and tool is separate - you can instantly see what the next step in the work process is. For example if you see 12 buns in the cheeseburger toaster and it beeps - you know that the only possible next step is the ketchup. So if your colleague is putting the burgers in the fryer you can step into the process instantaneously, without disturbing his or her rhythm of work. They will turn around and see what you are doing, and so can immediately start preparing the next 12 rolls. In this way you can step into the shoes of anyone and further split the division of labour as and when necessary. This can last for as little as one minuet or less, and then the two workers are reduced to one again. If you find yourself with nothing to do, you can be immediately occupied without un-necessary time wasting questions such as "Oh - is that a Mc Chicken your making". Of course its bloody not. If it was then we would be standing by the Mc Chicken toaster, toasting Mc Chicken rolls, right next to the Mc Chicken grill. So the absolute precision of the work process enables seamless co-operation and the full use of every work minute of every worker.

The subjective experience
OK, so people need to identify with their work, or at least make sense of it - and they have to do this at McDs too, which is pretty fucking difficult at times - so what do we get:
1. People caring about how many slices of gherkin are on each burger and taking pleasure out of correcting each other ("Why three slices there, McChicken is two gherkin") The amount that the tiny details are specified, gets internalised and workers argue amongst themselves about it.
2. People getting a kick out of the speed and slickness of the work. E.g. when the electricity went off we had to press all the buttons again to re-set the machines. Ms SuperMcWorker ran along pressing all the buttons so fast that Mr A. BitSlowButVerySweet didn't get a look in, as she actually raced him along the line of machines! The competitive spirit thereby working very well for McDonald's.
3. People getting a kick out of the team work. The feeling of being part smooth working of a group organism can be fantastic. When it rolls well and you can hardly believe yourself how fast the food is coming out, and when you look round to do something and see someone doing it that very second...
4. There is one person who is the 'controller'. They stand between the people serving the customers and the kitchen. There is supposed to be a ready supply of all the food choices there ready, but sitting there no longer than ten minutes. So this person looks at what is there and shouts out to the kitchen what is needed (10 McRibs, 6 Special Fish etc.), at which the kitchen worker has to say "Thank you" so show they have heard and will take care of that ("Uh hu" just won't do). This controller is usually a more experienced worker and so is able to prepare the food very fast. If the food is being prepared 'too slowly', or slower than they can, they sometimes shout at the kitchen workers. If we are OK, we just ignore the controllers stress, but if not, then the stress can spill over into the kitchen and people get annoyed with each other for being too slow. You have to remember that we are working in a passage between the fryers and the grills - too much speed is really dangerous. The little Hitlers LOVE the controller job - they are in charge of the pace of work and can boss you around and tell you off. When nice people are on control, the work is much better.
5. Some people even seem to care about the food and the customers - but hey - it takes all sorts.

After three days I was kind of rolling with the work and frying and assembling fast and furious - this one guy who has worked there a long time saw this and said "Es macht dir spaß oder?" (You are enjoying this hu?) He could see me getting the kick out of it. So then I felt a bit like a hare in a dog race - OK, now, GO - and I do - even though I have been set up in a shit position. Sometimes you automatically respond to work pressure in this way, and it does make the job less boring. I saw that some of the workers who had been there a long time and just COULD NOT get this buzz any more, were really depressed there and kind of done for. The pace is fast and you have a four-hour stint with a five-minute break. There is this feeling of an automatic fast steady rhythm of work. You need to keep this rhythm up, or you get behind and have to work double speed (i.e. burns on the hands speed). There is always the minimum number of people in each section (kitchen, tills etc), so if you take a 10 minute break rather than five minuets, your work mates will have to work faster. However, we say to each other - "No, it's OK, take 10 minutes", if it is a good day. You never have time to finish a reasonable size cup of water, or a coffee. When I took my drink downstairs and put it on the little counter where the rota is written up I was told this was not allowed and this is why you should always take a tiny cup (4 cm high) of water in the break time. Using the big McCups is not allowed, even though I was told at my introduction that the drinks were free. This is unbearable, given the heat of the kitchen.

What sort of workers
Where I work in Essen, Germany, out of about 50 workers there are about 15 from Afghanistan, 5 from India, people from Syria, Iran, Nigeria and many other places. Surprisingly few Turkish and Polish, (compared to the amount of Turkish and Polish in Germany) but maybe they are already a step up the hierarchical ladder than the Afghanis. Apart from the seven bosses, I have only met one German worker. The language is a German based free-for-all. Lots of the workers have lived there a long time and still don't really speak very good German. About 70 % women and we are whole range of ages.

A lot of the people had a really hard time finding a job in Germany and seem to feel that it is better to stick where they are that to try and find something better. There are the ones that had professions 'back home', and there is a sense of sadness sometimes that this is where we ended up - but never openly vocalised, as people have to get on with it. It is kind of hard to really question how they feel about the job sometimes because of the stigma, and so the sort of shame, of middle aged patriarchal men working there for years. Surprisingly, those I asked do not seem to have really looked elsewhere for a job. There is a feeling that 'German' jobs are just too unobtainable and it took them long enough to find this job. Some feel they are 'lucky' to have this job and are really worried about unemployment.

Due to this I felt that people didn't like it when I seemed to not care about the rules. It seemed arrogant of me, when they have had to obey these stupid rules and not cause trouble for years and then I act disrespectfully even though I am new. It doesn't seem fair somehow. They seem resigned to their fate, so they can't slag the job off too much.

There are people supporting whole families on the wage. One woman on her own with three kids, one man with five kids whose wife works in a clothing distribution warehouse. There are also some young, second generation people who are a college and work part time. Their German is good, but I guess they still could not got a 'German' job. They are the ones who tend to 'enjoy' the work most and work fast and flirt with each other. There is a woman with a bad knee who has to stand all day, but still won't look for another job due to low confidence and low motivation. She has been here six years and speaks pretty bad German.
People really like to talk about 'home' and how beautiful it is there.

Current issues
1. At the moment the management is changing because the old boss could not control the workers and too many people were taking too many sick days. The Super-boss from the German head-office has come in to sort us all out. There are a few (well, two) workers I have met who seem to be really openly rebellious and disrespectful. This is really refreshing after so many 'jobs-worth' people. Most people just work there - neither looking for promotion, nor making trouble.
2. It gets really hot in the kitchen and the air is really bad because of all the cooking. There is an air conditioning system - but it is never turned on. Why? Because it is too expensive.
3. What is pissing me off is that I am not allowed outside the building in my half hour unpaid lunch-break. Even if I change my clothes. Hmm.

Pay and conditions
We get a five minute break every two hours, and a half hour break every four. This is the time in the kitchen until you are back in the kitchen again. The walk to get the coffee and then get upstairs to the break room takes about 1,5 minutes, and the loo another minute.

The pay is 6.17 Euro per hour (4.50 pounds), 7.27 Euro between 10.00 p.m. and 6.00 a.m. It is so weird going shopping, or buying a falafel after that work, and spending so much on food, after seeing this shit all day.
25 Days holiday a year. After you have worked there one year you get an extra months holiday pay a year, Christmas money and other little perks.
1-month probation with a three-day notice period, then a two-week notice period after that.

The fried eggs for the breakfast muffins come in plastic wrapping ALREADY IN THE SHAPE OF A FRIED EGG!! The scrambled egg is a liquid in a tube and the boiled eggs are also plastic wrapped peeled eggs. When I accidentally left the scrambled egg cooking in the pan for over five minutes - IT WAS STILL NOT BURNED. What the fuck is that stuff??? The onions are white stuff in a vacuum packed bag, that you soak in water for two hours, then they are 'onions'.

And also, the washing up liquid is actually called McLiquid, and then you have McDisinfectant etc. etc...