The CEO of McDonald's Canada has branded recent criticism of its use of temporary foreign workers "bullshit" in a conference call to franchisees that was given to the CBC.
His remarks from earlier this week came before federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced an immediate moratorium on the food services sector’s access to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program late on Thursday, as a result of CBC Go Public's inquiries.
Three McDonald's franchises in Victoria and a pizza restaurant in Weyburn, Sask., are at the centre of program abuse allegations involving Canadian employees alleging foreign workers were given priority work status or more hours.
A federal investigation into McDonald’s use of the temporary foreign worker program was launched recently, after a Go Public story about a Victoria McDonald’s franchise.
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Tuesday's conference call was scheduled to address franchisees' concerns that McDonald's Canada had decided to put its temporary foreign worker program on hold, while a third party conducts an audit on its use of the plan.
McDonald's initiated that independent audit in response to the government investigation.
In a recording of the call given to the CBC, McDonald's Canada CEO John Betts discusses recent CBC stories on the company's use of temporary foreign workers and his resulting meeting with federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney.
"This has been an attack on our brand. This has been an attack on our system. This is an attack on our people. It’s bullshit OK! I used those words when I described my conversation with the minister last week. He gets it."
Betts says he was "incredibly impressed" with the minister, adding, "He really knows his stuff. And I’ll say he knows his stuff from a business person’s perspective."
Responding sarcastically to how his company has been portrayed in the media, Betts said, "The fact of the matter is we are a big bad company, corporate, you know, bad company and these poor maligned employees are who they are."
"Yes, they are disenfranchised. Some of them don’t work for us anymore. But in the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter."
"This story has been brewing for a lot of years. And you know at the end of the day we just happen to be the business that got tapped into it and we weren’t the first. Obviously, RBC was," said Betts, referring to a previous CBC Go Public story.
"The reality is that we have learned internally that we haven’t done a very good job in a lot more places than we thought and that’s just us on the phone talking."
McDonald's Canada responds
In a statement released Thursday, McDonald’s Canada said it acted “swiftly and forcefully” to investigate allegations some of its restaurants have misused the foreign workers’ program.
“We do not tolerate any misuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, any breach of employment standards or any infractions of any kind against our employees,” the statement said.
McDonalds also accused CBC News of being unfair and unbalanced in its reporting of the story, saying the network had “relied on a handful of disgruntled individuals, mostly ex-employees, to attempt to tarnish the reputation of one of Canada’s leading employers.”
However, CBC News stands by its stories.
CBC News received information from dozens of current and former McDonald's Canada employees and managers, who gave us a substantial amount of information beyond the people who were quoted in our stories.
Much of our reporting relied on documentation including payroll records, contracts and other internal McDonald's documents supplied to us by employees or former employees.
CBC News submitted a total of six requests for on-camera interviews with McDonald's Canada. Before we broadcast the three stories outlining the workers' allegations, CBC News made several requests for information. In total, we sent approximately two dozen emails to McDonald's Canada and its franchisees asking for information.
While the company declined our requests for an on-camera interview, McDonald's Canada did provide partial information via email.
In one email, sent on April 11, McDonald's Canada senior vice president of communications and public affairs Richard Ellis told CBC News the company would not comment publicly until a "comprehensive review" had been completed.
"If, at the completion of this review, we decide to share our findings publicly, I will commit to sharing that information with you first before speaking with any other media. At that time I may also consider providing more specific context via an on camera interview," Ellis wrote.
"In the meantime, as we undertake this extensive review, I would ask that you respect our process and refrain from further outreach to McDonald’s and our franchisees so we can get to the job at hand."
Ellis again responded to CBC News after April 11, when we asked for information about allegations from a foreign worker who said he and his co-workers were effectively forced to share an expensive apartment, then deducted almost half their take-home pay as rent.
Ellis responded by saying the employee was disgruntled after being let go after two months on the job.
"I suggest the input of an obviously disgruntled former employee is hardly the type of information you should be using to base your report," Ellis said at the time.
This information was accurately reported in CBC's coverage.
Franchisees fear losing staff
During Tuesday's conference call with McDonald's Canada's CEO, one franchisee in Alberta expressed concern about employees — temporary foreign workers — who won't be able to get their work permits renewed.
"When that happens, every single foreign worker in Alberta is going to leave us. They are scared. The restaurants are going to fall apart. This is how it is on the ground," said the franchisee.
We are a big, bad company...and these poor maligned employees are who they are- McDonald's Canada CEO John Betts, responding sarcastically to how the company has been portrayed in the media
Another franchisee was worried about money he had just paid to Actyl, one of the international recruitment agencies McDonald's pays up to $2,000 for every worker they bring in.
"I paid Actyl Group probably $14,000. So am I out the $14,000 now and the whole nine yards?" asked the franchisee.
The restaurant chain's vice-president of human resources Len Jillard, also taking part in the conference call, is heard replying, "Believe me, we are doing everything we can to get everything back on the rails."
Later on, Betts comments "This is a big one for us and it is critical because of our brand image and because of your need to make profits and our systems need to take care of our people."
'Element of truth'
Betts spends much of the conference call railing against the CBC's coverage of the controversy — but admits there is truth to the stories.
"Here’s the kicker. The kicker is there’s an element of truth in each of these stories," Betts said.
"What we’ve got to do is fix what we have in the restaurants concerning the temporary foreign workers.
"But what we’ve also learned is that we have other opportunities in the people area that we also need to take care of. Violations of labour law. And those are the kind of things that suddenly become compounded because we have another issue over here, that’s very emotional in Canada."
With regard to the company's decision to halt its Temporary Foreign Worker Program, Betts told concerned franchisees that, "In dealing with the government, the smartest move was to pre-empt their move in terms of suspending us."
"I think the relationship we build with the minister here is a politically astute one to be taking. Because they're feeling the heat big time before this story broke and now it's bigger and bigger," he went on.
"They need to see us as partners in this as a brand that can help them make some progress on this and at the same time give us an opportunity to clean ourselves up."
At no point during the recording does the CEO mention hiring Canadians instead of temporary foreign workers or go over the rules of the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Moratorium on food services industry
As a result of CBC Go Public's inquiries, federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced late Thursday an immediate moratorium on the food services sector’s access to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
"Our Government has been clear: Canadians must have the first chance at available jobs. We have repeatedly warned employers that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program must only be used as a last and limited resort when Canadians are not available," said the minister in a statement.
The minister said that despite an ongoing investigation into serious allegations of abuse of the program, the suspension of LMOs and the blacklisting of the employers in question, there remained serious concerns relating to the use of temporary foreign workers in the food services sector.
"As a result, I am announcing an immediate moratorium on the Food Services Sector’s access to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
"Accordingly, ESDC [Employment and Skills Development Canada] will not process any new or pending LMO applications related to the Food Services Sector. In addition, any unfilled positions tied to a previously approved LMO will be suspended."
The moratorium will remain in effect until the completion of the on-going review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Read the minister's full statement below. On mobile? Click here to read the minister's full statement
Federal government tip line
The federal government says it wants to hear from any other employee or job applicant from any McDonald's or other workplace nationwide who feels they have been negatively affected by the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Kenney's office provided the following phone number and email address for confidential tips:
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With files from CBC's Kathy Tomlinson