Fast-Food Workers Earn $20 an Hour plus Benefits…in Denmark. Why Not in U.S.?

Friday, October 31, 2014
Demonstration in Tennessee (photo: Doug Strickland, Chattanooga Times Free Press, AP)

Labor activists in the United States are talking a lot about Denmark these days to bolster their argument that fast food companies can pay their workers a livable wage and still make a profit.


Danish franchises serving up burgers offer salaries of $20 an hour, which is considerably more than the average wage of $8.90 in the American fast food industry.


“We see from Denmark that it’s possible to run a profitable fast-food business while paying workers these kinds of wages,” John Schmitt, an economist at the liberal Center for Economic Policy Research, told The New York Times.


Some economists, labor organizers and others have urged McDonald’s and other companies to boost their hourly wage to $15 per hour. They say such a significant bump is necessary to do something about the 50% of industry workers who have to rely on public assistance to get by because their pay envelopes are so thin.


Corporate representatives, however, dismiss the comparisons with Denmark’s fast food wage scale, saying that’s like “comparing apples to autos,” according to Steve Caldeira, president of the International Franchise Association. “Denmark is a small country” with a far higher cost of living, Caldeira told the Times. “Unions dominate, and the employment system revolves around that fact.”


Danish companies pay fast food employees $20 an hour despite not having a minimum wage law. Instead, companies are forced to pay this wage or higher under an agreement between Denmark’s largest union (3F) and the Danish employers group Horesta, which includes Burger King, McDonald’s, Starbucks and other restaurant and hotel companies, Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse reported.


“We Danes accept that a burger is expensive, but we also know that working conditions and wages are decent when we eat that burger,” Soren Kaj Andersen, a University of Copenhagen professor who specializes in labor issues, told the Times.


And it’s not as though Danish fast-food restaurant operators are losing money. “We have to acknowledge it’s more expensive to operate,” Martin Drescher, the general manager of airport restaurant operator HMSHost Denmark, said. “But we can still make money out of it — and McDonald’s does, too. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be in Denmark.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Living Wages, Rarity for U.S. Fast-Food Workers, Served Up in Denmark (by Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse, New York Times)

We’re not Denmark. But We Can Learn Something from that Nation about How They Pay Their Workers. (by Jared Bernstein, Washington Post)

Big Fast-Food Chains Pay So Little, Employees Use Billions in Welfare Benefits (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Fat Tax Spreads from Hungary to Denmark (by David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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