04/14/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/13/2014 05:59 EDT

McDonald's foreign worker practices face growing scrutiny

The federal investigation into McDonald’s use of temporary foreign workers has widened to several other locations, as more local workers speak out about feeling sidelined and shortchanged.

“I feel it’s definitely discrimination against Canadians,” said Chris Eldridge, from Lethbridge, Alta.

Eldridge just quit his managerial job for six McDonald’s locations in Alberta, because he said he could no longer stomach denying local employees much-needed shifts to accommodate temporary foreign workers.

“Honestly, some days I wonder, is this still Canada? Everyone is supposed to have equal rights.”

Eldridge was a manager who did the worker scheduling for McDonald’s franchisee Dan Brown. He's also upset about differences in pay. Many foreign workers started at $10.80 an hour, he said, while local employees doing the same job made less.

Federal rules stipulate that foreign workers coming in to Lethbridge as food service attendants must make at least the "prevailing wage" of $10.41. However, immigration lawyers told Go Public local employees doing the same job are not supposed to be paid less or lose hours as a result.

“I was instructed to ensure, based on the contracts the foreign workers had signed, that they would be guaranteed full-time hours, no questions asked,” said Eldridge, who said that meant he had to shortchange Canadian employees.

Federal investigators dispatched

As a result of our inquires, Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s office said the “urgent investigation” launched last week after Go Public’s story about a Victoria McDonald’s franchise has been expanded.

"Minister Kenney has expressed strong concerns about the potential abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to the head of human resources at McDonalds' head office," said a spokesperson from the minister's office.

The minister's office said franchises in Lethbridge and Parksville B.C. have been barred from applying to bring in any more temporary foreign workers, pending the outcome of the investigation.

"As soon as we became aware of these allegations, officials were directed to begin an urgent and immediate investigation. These cases are being investigated as urgently as the previous case in Victoria, including inspectors being dispatched," said Kenney's office.

“I was told [foreign workers] have better flexibility, they're willing to do whatever they're asked,” said Eldridge. “Because they were these amazing workers, they were given these [better] shifts.”

Brown owns six Alberta fast food outlets in Lethbridge, one in Pincher Creek and one in Taber. He confirmed he has 90 temporary foreign workers on staff.

He denies telling Eldridge to cut local employee hours. However, Eldridge said his instructions came from other managers,who said they were speaking on Brown’s behalf. He said some local employees didn’t get enough work to pay their rent.

“I was constantly having that guilt on my chest, because I could be the reason someone might lose the place that they're living in.” 

Brown confirmed part-time local staffers make $9.95 per hour – less than the foreign workers — but he said full-timers are paid equally. He said full-time hours are now split evenly between local and foreign staff.

“I provide people with an opportunity to live and work in Canada and contribute to the Canadian economy,” Brown said. “Temporary foreign workers in my restaurants are very grateful for the opportunity.”

Foreigners live in 'compound'

Eldridge said the foreign workers were recruited from Belize, the Philippines and Jamaica by Actyl Group, an international recruiter used by McDonald’s Canada. It charges employers up to $2,000 per worker it recruits.

Actyl’s job website is designed to attract foreign workers. It lists numerous ads for full-time jobs at McDonald’s. They all suggest Canadians can apply, but only for part-time work.

“The selected candidate is expected to work 40 hours per week with the possibility of overtime. Part-time applications from Canadians or people in Canada with their PR are also accepted,” the ads read.

Many of the open jobs currently on the Actyl site are not advertised on popular Canadian jobs sites like Kijiji. Linda West of Actyl said that is because those McDonald's locations already have government approvals to hire foreign workers.

Eldridge said Brown houses the foreign workers in an apartment building with six to eight employees per unit, and deducts approximately $400 a month from each worker’s pay for rent.

“It's a big apartment complex, but everyone calls it 'the compound.' It's so enclosed and overpacked in a lot of ways,” said Eldridge.

Go Public asked Brown if he is also the foreign workers’ landlord, but he didn’t answer.

Emily Bryce, who still works at one of his outlets, said she believes the foreigners are exploited because many are professionals by trade and leave their children behind for a chance to live in Canada.

“My Canada isn't one where you force people to choose between their job and their family. They should be taking full families in and giving them citizenship,” said Bryce.

The whole [foreign worker] program is unjust and it has too many loopholes in it for franchisee owners to exploit them.”

Locals feel marginalized nationwide

Go Public received complaints from McDonald’s workers in other B.C. and Alberta locations, too, as well as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. 

“The whole time I have worked at the local McDonald's there has been nothing but favouritism towards the Filipinos,” said a worker in New Brunswick. “Any Canadian that works here feels that if they were to complain it would be viewed racist, but it is a serious problem.”

“I’ve seen countless [local] people turned down [for] the chance to even submit resumes, or have the chance of their resumes to be looked at, before they enter the trash,” said an employee from a B.C. location.

An insider from Edmonton wrote, “Being a former general manager for McDonald’s, I can tell you on the franchisee side of the business this is the preferred hiring method...There are numerous other franchisees in the system that will exclude hiring Canadians first."

Seventy five percent of McDonald’s outlets in Canada are owned by franchisees.

A former assistant manager from a McDonald’s in Parksville, B.C., who was there for 24 years, said she was effectively pushed out the door in favour of workers from the Philippines.

“All those of us who have left, you know, for sure have all felt pushed out,” said 52-year-old Christina Morrow. “It was reverse discrimination.”

Her former boss, Jamie Johannesen, owns four area franchises. Morrow said he brought in 20 foreign workers when he bought the Parksville location three years ago.

Filipinos 'better workers'

“He said they were better workers…so I would have to cut [local employee] hours to give these people 40 hours.”

Morrow said her work was criticized for the first time in two decades and her pay was cut from $18 to $11 an hour.

“It felt like a knife in my heart, she said. I'd been there 24 years…a lifetime to devote your flesh and blood to a position like that but obviously I wasn't wanted anymore.”

She quit a year ago, because she says she couldn’t handle the pay cut.

“I would say the foreign workers were definitely favoured in almost every aspect,” said 19-year-old Brayden Chamberlain, who worked at the same McDonald’s for three years.

He quit last spring, because he said his hours had been cut so much it wasn’t worth working there anymore. He said some of the Filipinos had management roles, which made local workers feel marginalized.

“They treat you a lot differently.  You're the minority of the company and you almost end up
feeling exiled, which is why I ended up quitting,” he said. “If you are not Filipino, you have no place there.”

The owner, Johannesen, did not respond to requests for comment.

Go Public asked McDonald’s Canada for comment on this story, but the company said it needed more time to investigate.

Corporate McDonald's responding

"We have begun the process of undertaking a comprehensive review, working closely with external advisers, of all our restaurants – franchised and corporate-owned – across Canada that employ temporary foreign workers," said McDonald's Canada spokesperson Richard Ellis.

"As you will appreciate, it will take a significant amount of time to do this right."

The company said earlier it has 3,400 temporary foreign workers in its 1,400 locations and it abides by all the rules of the federal program.  

NDP employment critic Jinny Sims is calling for an emergency debate in Parliament and said the government should now suspend all temporary foreign worker permits for fast-food outlets.

“I believe this is an emergency,” said Sims. “This is creating unnecessary tension and the minister cannot wash his hands of this…his government is allowing this program to be abused.”

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