VICTORIA - McDonald's Canada says temporary foreign workers are a necessary part of the fast-food chain's business model, but its use of the federal jobs initiative is now on hold until the company satisfies itself and Canadians that it doesn't abuse the program.
Stung by recent criticism of its use of temporary foreign workers, McDonald's senior vice-president of human resources Len Jillard said Wednesday that the program is being halted while an audit by a third party determines if there have been violations or abuse of workers — foreign or Canadian.
"The reason why we're doing that is we want to communicate to everyone we're taking this very seriously," Jillard said in an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press. "We're taking a pause. We're making sure that we've got everything in order, which I'm convinced we have."
Jillard said McDonald's had already informed federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney about its decision.
In Winnipeg on Wednesday, Kenney called the actions by McDonald's responsible.
"And, quite frankly, I would encourage other companies to more closely look at their own practices, especially for these companies that have franchise operations where they may not be directly dealing with the day-to-day management decisions."
Jillard said McDonald's is voluntarily suspending its use of federal Labour Market Opinion applications for all of its Canadian restaurants for the hiring of temporary foreign workers. The LMO process is designed to ensure there are no Canadian workers available before a company receives permission to hire foreign workers.
Three McDonald's franchises in Victoria and a pizza restaurant in Weyburn, Sask., are at the centre of program abuse allegations involving Canadian employees saying foreigners were given priority work status and in some cases took their jobs.
McDonald's is in the process of taking full ownership of the three Victoria franchises from the Victoria operator who previously held an 80 per cent share in those outlets.
The owners of Brothers Classic Grill and Pizza in Weyburn issued a statement Wednesday saying they recently changed the restaurant's hours of operation, laid everyone off, and offered workers their jobs back with new hours.
"Some of our employees advised us they required more hours than we were now able to offer and made the decision to not return to our employment," the statement said.
"Other employees unhappy with the changes we were forced to make (and) indicated they would not be returning. We respected their decision, if not the way they have chosen to conduct themselves toward our business and their former co-workers."
The statement said some temporary foreign workers are being used to fill vacant shifts, but stressed no new employees have been hired.
Shortly after the Victoria restaurants were singled out by the federal government for breaking the rules, B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair called on the company to stop using the program and asked Ottawa to eliminate the use of the temporary workers for entry-level jobs.
"If McDonald’s does not take action to achieve these solutions the B.C. Federation of Labour will consider further actions, including but not limited to, calling for a boycott of McDonald’s," read the letter Sinclair sent to McDonald's CEO John Betts.
Irene Lanzinger, secretary treasurer with B.C. Federation of Labour, said in an interview Wednesday that McDonald's still had not gone far enough to solve the problem.
"They've taken some steps to deal with that, but really they should show a commitment to hiring Canadian residents for these jobs."
Jillard said McDonald's continues to support hiring temporary foreign workers to alleviate labour shortages in some markets, especially in small, booming towns in Western Canada.
He said the company was setting up the terms of reference for the third-party analysis, but hadn't yet hired the firm that would do the work.
"It's responsible for us as a reinforcement of our core value of being responsible, ethical and caring for our employees that we take this pause right now."
Four per cent of the more than 80,000 McDonald's employees in Canada are temporary foreign workers, Jillard said.
Kenney warned earlier Wednesday that employers who abuse the foreign workers program could face fraud charges and possible jail time.
The minister said the federal government believes the number of abusers is small, but penalties could be stiff.
"If an employer lies on their application for this program ... that could constitute fraud, potentially, under the Immigration Act, which is a criminal offence punishable with jail time or very severe penalties," Kenney told a news conference on job training.
"We're putting, I think, the small number of abusive, bad employers on notice that we won't tolerate that."
Kenney said a bill now before Parliament would make it easier to impose administrative penalties on employers who don't follow the rules. He also said the government has beefed up the program requirements to help prevent abuse.
"We've extended the advertising requirements for employers, we ensure that they pay what's called the prevailing regional wage rate, which is effectively often more than what starting local employees get paid, and we're now charging employers fees when they apply for the program."