Since the 2016 referendum and the ongoing debates about the terms of Brexit, the fast food industry has emerged as one of the major battlegrounds of the EU withdrawal process.
Disagreements have mainly concerned agribusiness regulation and its accompanying food standards. But Brexit has also shed light on political and economic fault lines further down the food supply chain that are often overlooked, in particular at the point of fast food preparation and delivery.
Brexit and the affect on the fast food industry
When the so-called ‘pizza club’ of Brexiteer cabinet members plotted over slices of pepperoni against Theresa May’s Brexit deal last autumn, they were participating in a thriving UK takeaway market worth £6.2 billion.
The expansion of food-to-go platforms like Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Just Eat is of course a global phenomenon, and Brexit is unlikely to directly affect investment decisions in that sector of the British economy. Yet the UK’s relationship to the EU, as I argue in a contribution to a forthcoming PQ special issue on food and Brexit, does have material consequences for fast food workers. Brexit could affect the employment rights, collective bargaining and immigration status of the many overseas citizens employed as riders and labourers in food aggregator ‘dark kitchens’.
It is against this backdrop that last October a coalition of unions and civil society organisation launched a nationwide McStrike demanding living wage, union recognition and the end to zero-hour contracts in chains like McDonalds, JD Weatherspoon and TGI Fridays.
Irrespective of its limited immediate impact, the Fast Food Rights campaign forged a unique alliance between traditional unions like the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) whose 20,000 strong-membership is mainly concentrated in processing plants and hospitality, and new rank-and-file organisations such as the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), who have over recent years unionised an estimated 4,100 members among Uber drivers, couriers, cleaners and foster carers.
The alliance reflects in a microcosm the UK’s changing class composition, and the accompanying attempts by some unions to organise and coordinate diverse workforces across the whole of the food supply chain. One striking aspect of such efforts are the radically opposing views on Brexit emanating from the main unions involved.
Union views of the EU
While the BFAWU adopted a Left-Brexit (‘Lexit’) position at its 2016 congress, the IWGB steadfastly supports remaining in the EU through a People’s Vote – “and, if a vote is impossible, a Brexit which ensures the UK remains a member of the single market, with EU employment law protections”. The IWGB sees European law as the ‘constitutional underpinning’ of worker’s rights in the UK. This is because it offers protections and importantly, enforcement mechanisms through the Court of Justice of the European Union, which would otherwise be unavailable or significantly diluted.
In fact, the IWGB was one of several intervenors in the Supreme Court hearing on Gina Miller’s legal case requiring a Parliamentary Act to formally authorise the UK’s departure from the EU. Furthermore, it has assiduously deployed EU-based legislation in the high-profile cases involving its members.
The BFAWU in contrast, has for many years portrayed the EU as “a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance”, and insisting that “it’s never been bureaucrats in Brussels or bureaucrats in any government that’s given us any rights, it’s what we have made sure that we have achieved by standing together collectively”.
Contrasting expectations of the future of fast food after Brexit
These ideological and tactical divergences reflect contrasting expectations of how Brexit will affect the fast food industry. The precarious immigrant labourer that cooks and delivers food-to-go is, for unions like the IWGB, emblematic of a growing gig economy. And that is best challenged through grassroots actions aimed at enforcing employment law (much of it derived from EU directives).
On the other hand, Lexiteers in the Bakers Union envisage a British food sector protected by a socialist government in Downing Street. They hope this will revitalise the manufacturing sector more generally, and food production, processing and hospitality more specifically.
Boris Johnsons’ project for a free-trading, deregulated ‘Global Britain’ is plainly more closely aligned to the promises of gig economy. It is consonant in many ways with Deliveroo’s cosmopolitan promise of a ‘food freedom’ that brings global flavours straight to our door at the press of a button.
Looking forward, like the rest of the British labour movement, fast food rights campaigners will have to take stock and adjust their repertoire of activism to a post-Brexit landscape characterised by struggles over workers’ rights without legal recourse to European institutions.
In that sense, the takeaway pizza ordered by Tory cabinet rebels is more than conspiratorial fuel: it symbolises the wider socioeconomic implications of a flexible, low-cost, platform-driven food system that is likely to accompany Britain ‘taking back control’ of its laws and standards in coming years.
A longer version of this article will appear in the Political Quarterly journal.