The second episode of the BBC’s documentary on KFC, Billion Dollar Chicken Shop, asked: What is it really like to work for a giant fast food chain? It’s been a diverting series, if somewhat failing to probe anything beyond what KFC want to show them, and this episode was no different. Yes, it turns out that it’s a bit grim to clean human excrement off the toilet walls, that washing things coated in chicken fat is unpleasant, and no-one wants to deal with a drunk Glaswegian at four in the morning. But there was a theme that ran through the first twenty minutes or so that deserves more attention.
We get to see the recruitment process for bottom-of-the-ladder team members. 400 applicants need to be whittled down to 50 so they’re placed in small groups and asked to complete tasks. The bloke in charge explains that they don’t want applicants turning up in suits and showing off interview technique; instead they want to employ a process that reveals the personalities of these, predominantly, young adults, so they make them teamwork a new slogan and devise a KFC rap. That’s hip hop rap, not chicken wrap. This emphasis runs throughout the process: personality, character, attitude. Anyone lacking in charisma or extroversion is out and KFC aren’t, apparently, looking for skills beyond this. For example, Jenni, a successful applicant, tells the film-maker that she has certificates in professional cookery from a catering college and hopes to work in the kitchen as a stepping stone to a job in the catering industry (I imagine she means beyond fast food outlets). It appears that these professional qualifications counted for little as she was given a job working on the tills for £5.03 an hour. She got through because she was personable rather than because she could cook a chicken or maintain food hygiene.
As we’ve seen in all three episodes, every aspect of the KFC operation in each outlet is scrutinised by unannounced inspectors. There’s a set number of times that the chicken needs to be turned in the flour, another set number for how many taps each piece requires to knock off the excess. People are doing the cooking, sure enough, but it’s no less an automated process for that fact. That’s why personality is so important: if you have to employ people instead of machines then in minimum wage employment it’s the only advantage the former have over the latter. It’s also the only thing that KFC can’t really train into people, as one of the recruiters explains. You can teach young adults the regimented process for frying a chicken or how to mop shit off a wall. The inspectors can check that this is being done properly. But you can’t teach character; you can’t, easily, turn an awkward young man into a social butterfly.
Jenni had the wrong qualification. Rico, who works the tills in a Glasgow outlet and is easily the break-out star of the series so far, was much better qualified: he has a BA in Acting and Performance. No, this isn’t some variant on the old jokes about Media Studies/Philosophy/Dramatic Arts graduates (What do you say to a philosophy graduate? Big Mac and chips, please). I’m a philosophy graduate who teaches in a Communication and Media department so I know how employable such graduates are, and how valued their skills are, far beyond so-called McJobs. Instead, the point is that we have seen a huge shift in this country from industry to retail, mass de-skilling in the workplace and contraction of work roles by automation. We all sell our labour to live and, increasingly, the only thing many of us have left to sell is personality. Autonomist Theorists like Franco Berardi, Maurizio Lazzarato and Christian Marazzi talk of the soul being put to work. In his essay on Immaterial Labour (in the excellent edited collection Radical Thought in Italy) Lazzarato writes:
“The management mandate to “become subjects of communication” threatens to be even more totalitarian than the earlier rigid division between mental and manual labor (ideas and execution), because capitalism seeks to involve even the worker’s personality and subjectivity within the production of value”.
Our social abilities are now productive forces (something that would come as no surprise to Mark Zuckerberg), expropriated and exploited for profit. Jenni had no previous work experience but if we turn to Kim, another successful applicant, then we can see what might look good on an application. Kim’s previous job was as an elf. That’s right: an elf. It wasn’t clear to me whether this was a pantomime elf or an elf at a Santa’s Grotto but either way, like Rico, she has the right kind of skill set for a customer facing role at KFC: performance, interaction, confidence and sociability. In essence, they can both communicate. And communication is at the heart of our post-industrial economy.
At the end of the episode we meet with Travis. He worked at KFC for two weeks before moving on. Travis joined to gain skills that would be transferable in other work places but was frustrated, stating that there was never time to learn anything useful on the job since he spent so much time cleaning and litter-picking. He now works in a bar, another form of communicative labour even if it appears to primarily involve pulling pints. “You’re basically a robot” he says of KFC.
When you work in an automated process that hasn’t yet been outsourced to machines, when your only saleable asset as a worker is your soul and yet it’s put to work for the enrichment of others, that’s basically what you are – as far as capital is concerned.