Bennett stands by practice of hiring temporary foreign workers

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on April 26, 2014
Cathy Bennett is the Liberal MHA-elect for Virginia Waters, and also a business owner who’s brought in dozens of temporary foreign workers to staff her McDonald’s restaurant franchises. She defended the practice in the wake of a national moratorium on temporary foreign workers for the food services industry. — Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram

Liberal MHA-elect and business owner Cathy Bennett wanted to defend her own practices amid a national controversy over temporary foreign workers and McDonald’s restaurant labour practices.

Bennett owns several McDonald’s franchises and currently employs 21 temporary foreign workers in her businesses, but she said that she offers top-notch wages and makes every effort to hire Newfoundlanders first.

“When we made a decision to avail of the temporary foreign worker program — which was a very, very difficult decision for me — we didn’t stop recruiting domestically,” she said.

“We continued and actually accelerated the activities that we had to recruit domestically.”

Moratorium on practice

This week, federal employment Minister Jason Kenney announced a moratorium on temporary foreign workers in the food services industry after allegations of exploitive labour practices across the country and accusations that the non-Canadians were displacing Canadians who wanted to work.

Bennett said she didn’t want to talk about the national picture, but she was happy to defend her own business practices.

“Our benefits package, like I’ve said repeatedly, is way ahead of our competitors, not just in salary but in group insurance, in uniform costs, in other benefits that we offer employees,” Bennett said.

“If you’re going to operate a business, you have to operate it in an ethical way, and we do that.”

Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council executive director Richard Alexander said that when it comes to the food service industry, Canadians just aren’t willing to pay the kinds of prices that would support a high enough wage so that businesses can hire only Canadians.

So, he said, unless the government wants to reform employment insurance to force people to take jobs that are open, employers have to bring in people from other parts of the world.

“It’s an optional purchase. They don’t have to do it. They can eat at home,” he said. “Any mild fluctuations in the price of food from a restaurant will have big implications on the bottom line of a business.”

Alexander said the stories about exploitive employers taking advantage of foreign workers is just isolated incidents, and they’re only allegations. He said Kenney’s decision to put a moratorium on the whole sector is a patently political move.

But New Democrat MP Ryan Cleary said he doesn’t think it goes far enough.

Cleary said he’d like to see a moratorium on all temporary foreign workers — not just in the food service industry.

He pointed to a situation he dealt with in 2012 where Guatemalan chicken catchers in St. John’s complained to his office because they weren’t getting paid what the employer originally promised, and they were living in a mould-infested apartment.

“There’s a bigger, broader problem here for the workforce,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure these temporary foreign workers that we bring in have liveable wages in safe working conditions. That’s not happening.”

Cleary said he’s also fielded allegations that McDonald’s has cut hours to some of its part-time employees because it had to give a firm number of hours to temporary foreign workers.

Mary Shortall, president of the NL Federation of Labour, said that part of the problem is the “temporary” part of temporary foreign workers.

She said there’ll always be a need for a small number of temporary workers from other parts of the world, but if there are labour shortages, they should be dealt with through immigration.

“There’s more need for settled people to be here, especially in this province where we have a declining birth rate and an aging population,” she said. “If migrant workers are good enough to work here, they should be good enough to live here.”

Actually, that’s something Bennett said is already happening.

She said employees who have come to work for her under the temporary foreign workers program have actually gone on to transfer their immigration status and move towards permanent citizenship.

“It’s a very cool thing to see,” she said. “There is nothing more humbling than when a person chooses Newfoundland and Labrador as their home.”