The government's decision to impose a moratorium on the fast-food industry's access to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program will send employers "a very clear message" that abuse will not be tolerated, says Employment Minister Jason Kenney.
Kenney's comments came during a news conference in Vancouver on Friday, a day after CBC released an audio recording of the CEO of McDonald's Canada speaking to franchise owners during a private conference call earlier in the week.
"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," McDonald's Canada CEO John Betts is heard saying.
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In a written statement on Friday, McDonald's Canada said it acted "swiftly and forcefully" to investigate allegations some of its restaurants has misused the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
"We do not tolerate any misuse of the [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."
CBC's director of journalism standards and practices David Studer said "CBC News stands by its stories."
Despite the CEO's claim that Kenney "gets it," the minister today denied any suggestion that he is onside with McDonald's.
"I think that corporation understood very well how serious we were to freeze that corporation's access to the program and they therefore decide to take action unilaterally," Kenney said on Friday.
Kenney said he did not hear the CEO's comments for himself but that he was aware of the media reports about the recording.
"What I can tell you is that I am happy when any employer takes disciplinary action or to self-police. If indeed this corporation wasn't serious about that, that I find very regretful. And we will not tolerate efforts to skirt the rules of this program, period," Kenney said.
Kenney took aim at employers saying they should raise wages and increase training for Canadians.
Opposition parties react
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said when members of Parliament return to Ottawa next week, the New Democrats will use their opposition day in the House of Commons on Tuesday to move a motion to address the alleged abuses with the program.
The motion will call on the government to put a moratorium on the use of the program for low-skilled jobs, and request the auditor general to lead an independent review of the program.
Speaking on CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Friday, Mulcair said, "To see McDonald's charging people off their pay to live in apartments owned by them, it's quasi-slavery frankly, and it's absolutely unbecoming [of] a country like Canada."
In an interview scheduled to air Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Kenney characterized Mulcair's comments as typical of his "tendency towards extreme hyperbole."
Kenney also made it clear that "any abuse of people's rights is totally unacceptable and there must be severe legal consequences."
A foreign worker recruited from Belize accused McDonald’s Canada last week of treating him and other workers like "slaves."
The Liberals also filed a motion today calling for the human resources commons committee to hold televised hearings on the problems with the program.
Liberals would like to call Kenney to testify as well as two former longtime waitresses — Sandy Nelson and Shaunna Jennison-Yung — who told CBC News they believed they had lost their jobs to workers hired under the TFW program.
Liberal immigration critic John McCallum asked the auditor general to audit the program on Tuesday, saying it could shed light on whether "the program is being used to displace Canadian workers or drive down wages."
More than just fast-food jobs
Kenney took to Twitter following his announcement Thursday to say that "debate on the TFW Program should be based on facts, not myths."
Canadian employers hire temporary foreign workers to fill more than just jobs in the food sector and shutting down the program would have negative consequences for the Canadian economy.
Kenney noted that temporary foreign workers make up only two per cent of the 1.1 million people employed in Canadian restaurants.
"Those calling for the TFWP to be 'shut down' should understand that this would be have vast, negative consequences for our economy," Kenney said in a post on Twitter.
"Shutting down the TFWP would be for our trade in services what closing our borders to imports would be to our trade in goods," Kenney said.
The moratorium does not extend to farmers, for instance, who hire foreign workers through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
"If aspects of TFWP are being abused or are distorting our labour market, let's address them. Let's also have some nuance in the discussion," Kenney said.
With files from CBC's Tom Parry and Susana Mas