Australians are eating out less as the economy loses momentum, and the big fast food companies say they can’t afford to comply with upcoming national employment standards.

The restaurant, cafe and takeaway food sector has been in decline for more than a year, although consumers are still tucking into fast food, official data this week showed.

Hamburger group McDonald’s, which employs 75,000 mainly young Australians, says that in the uncertain economic climate, a new national fast food award next year would be risky.

“These risks are exacerbated by the current economic environment,” the American multinational said in a statement.

“It has huge implications for all employers in the fast food industry and involves both significant cost and risk for all businesses in the takeaway food sector.”

The National Retail Association – which represents fast food giants KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway and Eagle Boys – goes further, saying a national award could cost up to 20,000 jobs.

“Eight, 10, 20,000 job opportunities will be lost,” NRA executive director Gary Black said.

“It’s beyond belief… given the forecasts of rising unemployment.”

The Australian Industrial Relation Commission’s modern fast food award will come into effect in January 2010, and replace a string of state and territory provisions.

The national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, Joe de Bruyn, said the national awards would not cause job losses because they were a compromise between various existing state awards.

“I don’t think this is going to cause job losses at all,” Mr de Bruyn said.

“If the fast food employers say it will cause job losses, they’re crying poor but not really understanding what’s being proposed.”

The AIRC’s national award states incorporated fast food firms must pay time and three-quarters on Sundays, and double time for overtime.

Workers rostered on a Saturday would get time and a quarter, which is equal to the existing NSW fast food award.

Employees doing overtime from Saturday to Monday would get time and a half for the first two hours, and double time after that.

The AIRC finished reducing 500 industrial awards down to 17 before Christmas, including national standards for the fast food industry.

With the economy struggling, consumers are eating out less, with Australian Bureau of Statistics data showing that volume turnover in the cafe, restaurant and takeaway food services sector fell by a seasonally adjusted 1.5% in the December quarter.

This was the fifth quarterly decline.

But as Australians shunned fine dining, they were still embracing fast food with the ABS figures also showing total turnover in the takeaway food retailing sector growing by 3.4 per cent in the final quarter of 2008.

Australia’s unemployed ranks have swollen by more than 100,000 to 540,000 since February 2008, when the jobless rate was at a 34-year low of 3.9%, ABS data shows.