With over 33,000 branches worldwide, over one million employees, an average of 58 million guests per day and an estimated annual revenue of $30 billion, it is one of the biggest and most successful transnational companies. No matter where you go in the world its iconic golden arches, representing the fast heartbeat of a rapidly globalising world marked by American economic and cultural imperialism, always seem to follow.

Image courtesy of Andy Nomadize, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Andy Nomadize, © 2007, some rights reserved.

The McDonald’s logo even beats the Christian crucifix when it comes to the most internationally recognisable symbols of all times.[1] Consequently, opposition against a company of such enormous global influence may seem futile. But is it really?

In this context our attention shall be turned to Bolivia. After all eight national McDonald’s branches were closed down in 2002, everybody kept asking the same question: Why did the McChicken cross the road? A variety of socio-economic, ideological, cultural, and political explanatory approaches were debated. The 2011 documentary “Fast Food off the shelf – Why McDonald’s went bankrupt in Bolivia” aims at shedding light on the reasons behind this development.

Echoing many Bolivians, Fernando Martinez, the film’s producer, suggests that the idea of fast food, locally referred to as “comida rapida”, contradicts the intensely appreciative national relationship with food. As most Bolivians m    make a living through agriculture, the food production process is intrinsically linked to cultural identity.

Furthermore, the McDonald’s business plan of affordability through mass-production ultimately failed in Bolivia. According to some voices in a public survey about attitudes towards McDonald’s it became apparent that even having your child’s birthday party at a McDonald’s restaurant could be interpreted as an unpleasant status symbol.

Due to the presence of these negative perceptions, there was simply not enough demand for the fast food industry to stay profitable in Bolivia.

The closure of McDonald’s in Bolivia can thus be interpreted as an encouraging example of a national resistance movement against a large corporation. However, there is a flaw in this interpretation: If mass-produced food really violates Bolivian cultural norms why are Burger King and other fast food chains successfully operating in Bolivia to this day?

Here it is especially important to take the symbolic significance of McDonald’s’ presence in Latin America into account. They are primarily conceived as a constant reminder of foreign cultural imperialism. Given Evo Morales’ stance and the country’s general mood regarding American economic influence, this is likely to have factored into McDonald’s’ misfortune in Bolivia. During riots against the previous “gringo” (white) president, Gonzalo ‘Goni’ Sánchez de Lozad, the golden arches became an immediate physical target when the unrest turned violent.

Ironically, now that indigenous rights are finally discussed on a government level in Bolivia, a widening middle class creates favourable economic conditions for US companies to return and restart the process of foreign financial domination. Next year, the coffee chain Starbucks is expected to enter the Bolivian market. Does this mean that McDonald’s might soon return to Bolivia as well?

In this context it is important to mention that economic circumstances might have also substantially contributed to the McDonald’s shutdown. Argentina’s economic crash in the late 1990s had a significant spill over effect on Bolivia, but Bolivia was not the only state affected. The company closed its doors in nine other countries in Latin America, but also in the Middle East, directly affecting over 700 restaurants in 2002.

McDonald’s is not only criticised abroad, but also faces rejection within the United States.  The company is frequently not viewed as a job creator, but is instead often perceived as a “net destroyer of jobs by using low wages and the huge size of their business to undercut local food outlets and thereby force them out of business.” [2]

“Complaints from employees range from discrimination and lack of rights, to understaffing, few breaks and illegal hours, to poor safety conditions and kitchens flooded with sewage, and the sale of food that has been dropped on the floor.”[3]

A nationwide walkout for better wages was recently launched on August 29th 2013. “2,200 of the nation’s millions of fast-food workers staged a one-day strike in seven cities.”[4] Employees walked out of McDonald’s franchises demanding a better pay and better working conditions. Hundreds of restaurants had to temporarily close down as large crowds joined the employees in solidarity. Similar protests were launched in other fast food chains, including Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Burger King.  

The protesters united under a joint demand to increase the national minimum wage to $15/hour, as most claimed that $7.40/hour is simply not enough to provide for a family.

 The McDonald’s Corporation, however, was unwilling to make concessions, fearing that a rise in wages would risk higher food prices on menus that would destabilise the business as a whole, as fewer people would be able to afford to take advantage of the cheap and quick service McDonald’s offers. As expected, McDonald’s Corp. and Burger King Worldwide Inc. further eschewed responsibility over the issue by arguing that most restaurants which operate under their logo are franchised and therefore directly responsible themselves for assuring ethical working conditions.