AP Food Industry Writer

NEW YORK (AP) _ Labor organizers are turning up the heat on McDonald’s and other fast-food chains to raise worker pay, with protests set to spread to more than 30 countries Thursday.

The demonstrations build on a campaign by unions to bring attention to the plight of low-wage workers and get the public behind the idea of a $15-an-hour wage.

Businesses say such pay hikes would hurt their ability to create jobs and that the focus should be on creating education and job training opportunities.

The protests are being backed by the Service Employees International Union and began in New York City in late 2012. Since then, organizers have steadily intensified actions to keep the issue in the spotlight.

In March, for instance, lawsuits filed in three states accused McDonald’s of engaging in practices that deprive workers of their rightful wages, such as the denial of breaks and overtime pay. Workers were referred to lawyers by union organizers, who announced protests over “wage theft” the following week.

Turnouts for the protests in the U.S. have varied widely and the scope of the actions planned for overseas Thursday also differed depending on the country.

The campaign has nevertheless captured national media attention at a time when the gap between the rich and poor has widened and pay packages for executives have come under greater scrutiny. It also comes as President Barack Obama works to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The current rate of $7.25 an hour translates to about $15,000 a year, assuming a person works 40 hours a week.

Last week, workers and union representatives from countries including Argentina, China, El Salvador, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom gathered at the SEIU’s building in New York City to strategize for the first day of global actions.

Louise Marie Rantzau, a 21-year-old McDonald’s worker from Denmark, said she earns about $21 an hour because of a collective agreement with the chain in the country. The agreement prevents workers from protesting McDonald’s, but she said they planned to take photos outside other chains like Burger King and post them on social media to show their support.

Another McDonald’s worker from New Zealand, Taylor McLoon, said she earns about $15 an hour but noted that workers encountered other problems, such as not being paid for breaks.

Despite the attention, fast-food workers have historically been considered difficult to unionize because many are part-timers or teenagers who don’t stay on the job for long. Also complicating matters is that the majority of fast-food restaurants in the U.S. are owned by franchisees who say they’re already operating on thin profit margins.

In a statement, the National Restaurant Association called the actions “nothing more than big labor’s attempt to push their own agenda.”