"'Drive-thru' fast-food outlets in supermarket carparks are, to some commentators, potent symbols of the desolation of modern Britain.
'The Burger King economy' - a phrase coined and gleefully capitalised upon by the Labour spokesman Ian McCartney, MP for Makerfield - encapsulates the state of affairs in which British capital investment is supposed to flow not into productive industry and training but, if at all; into the febrile, debased consumerism of out-of-town retail developments; which promotes a low-wage, low-skill, no-hope job market of grill chefs and trolley packers; which in turn breeds the insecurity which stunts socio-economic progress, and keeps the feel-good factor beyond the horizon.
The phrase itself derives, to use a term from the hamburger trade, from Mr McCartney's double-whopper of a success. That was last year when he drew attention to the practice in some Burger King restaurants of making staff clock off and on again in mid-shift if there were not enough customers to keep them busy. This was later declared by Burger King to have been a misinterpretation of company rules and to constitute a sackable offence for branch managers. But the damage was done. An unnamed 17-year-old Glaswegian made tabloid headlines ("Want to spend five hours at Burger King and get paid £1? You got it!") which captured a perfect parable of dead-end employment - the kind of exploitation which offers youngsters no incentive at all to haul themselves off the couch and into the world of work.
It is a dismal picture, but is it a myth? Britain's youth unemployment rate, at 15.7%, is actually five points better than the European average. An OECD survey in July 1995 reported that "wide distribution of working hours, low strike activity, ease of hiring and firing, wider wage differentials according to skill classifications and greater wage variations across regions" had all helped to reverse the trend in Britain's jobless numbers, which have fallen by 750,000 since they peaked in December 1992.
And what is fundamentally wrong, we may ask, with low-paid, casual work for teenagers, so long as it is honestly offered and carries the possibility of leading to something better. One person in eight in the American workforce received his or her first pay-packet from McDonald's. A callow youth employed to pack shoppers' purchases into plastic bags in Tesco learns, at the very least, something about punctuality, tidiness, co-operation with fellow workers and dealing with customers, and he is not vandalising telephone boxes and living off the taxpayer in the meantime. At Burger King, 60% of branch managers in the London area have worked their way up from the lowest grade of counter staff, learning first about food hygiene and later about "food cost, management of loss control, staff development, restaurant finance, retailing and management skills".
So it is a good thing that jobs are being created at the bottom of the ladder, and it is not in itself a bad thing that the lowest grade of assembly-line work in a Korean-owned plant in the north-east of England may attract less than £3 per hour, below the equivalent rate in Korea. If it were more, the owners would just carry on assembling their microwave ovens in the suburbs of Seoul, or commission a factory in Turkey.
What we now understand by "the Burger King economy" may have been a retrogressive force in the mid-1980's. But in 1996 it is almost a term of approval."
On the McDonald's side of the screen there are happy images of laughing children enjoying a family outing to a burger bar. Ronald McDonald shows you round all the food, gifts and services available from the hamburger giant. In between the pages, random quotes and anecdotes appear, casting McDonald's products as a quintessential part of the American way of life.
Scroll down the environmentalists' side of the story and you can click onto deforestation, the creation of non-biodegradable waste, and the pay and conditions of McDonald's staff. You can read nutritionists arguments against fast food and study a deconstruction of McDonald's website promotion.
The new Guided Tour and the Debating Room, a global discussion group, are the latest features of McSpotlight, the website set up in support of the McLibel Two, members of the London branch of Greenpeace [McSpotlight Editor's note: London Greenpeace and Greenpeace International are no relation] currently embroiled in a long and expensive defamation suit brought by McDonald's.
Launched in February this year, McSpotlight has become the biggest grass-roots campaign on the net. It contains around 18,000 documents compiled by hundreds of campaigners around the world. In it's first month it was accessed one million times. McDonald's, which takes its corporate image extremely seriously, hit the site 1,800 times in the first week. Ironically, millions have now seen the allegedly defamatory leaflet for which McDonald's took Helen Steel and Dave Morris to court.
Due to interest in the web site, the leaflet produced by a small group of environmental activists has been written about in newspapers around the world and made it to the front page of USA Today.
So far the McDonald's line has been that there is nothing it can do to stop the producers of the web site. The main server is based in the Netherlands, which has less restrictive libel laws than Britain.
However if the "McLibel" trial, which is due to end in November, goes in McDonald's favour, legal experts predict the multinational may try to take action. The way the Guided Tour "captures" trademark images, using an unauthorised link, could provide a test case over access to commercial copyrighted material. Already there have been in the United States test cases in which access providers have been forced to take action against people who put out defamatory information. A defamation bill currently before Parliament could make operators such as Compuserve responsible for libel. In theory the access provider could be made the equivalent of the publisher of a newspaper in terms of responsibility in that regard.
McSpotlight address: http://www.McSpotlight.org/
Guided Tour: http://www.mcspotlight.org/tours
Debating Room: http://www.mcspotlight.org/debate/
[Picture of top page of Guided Tour of McDonald's Website]