Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - The federal government said Monday it is investigating a Saskatchewan restaurant where two long-serving waitresses say they and two others recently lost their jobs to temporary foreign workers.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney has asked his department to investigate the Brothers Classic Grill and Pizza in Weyburn, Sask., a spokeswoman for the minister said Monday.
It’s just the latest in a series of investigations launched in the wake of a flurry of reports from across Canada about alleged abuse of the Conservative government’s controversial temporary foreign worker program.
Sandy Nelson and Shaunna Jennison-Yung told the CBC they were among several servers at the restaurant who were fired last month and replaced by government-approved temporary help from outside Canada.
Nelson, who is 58, had been employed by the restaurant for 28 years.
In an interview Monday, Nelson said she still doesn’t understand how she could be out looking for a new job while foreigners remain employed at the restaurant where she worked for nearly three decades.
“I think they expected me to just walk away with my tail between my legs,” said Nelson, who has since found part-time work.
All of the restaurant’s staff members received discharge letters in March, she added; some were offered their jobs back, including two temporary foreign workers.
Any allegations of abuse of the temporary foreign workers program will be investigated, said Alexandra Fortier, a spokeswoman for Kenney.
“We’ve asked Employment and Social Development Canada to investigate this case,” Fortier said in an email.
“Our government will not tolerate any abuse of the temporary foreign worker program. Our message to employers is clear and unequivocal — Canadians must always be first in line for available jobs.”
The restaurant’s owners did not immediately return phone calls Monday.
Dozens of people from across Canada and elsewhere lashed out at the establishment on its Facebook page, many of them calling for a boycott.
“This weeks special? Laying off Canadian employees and scamming the foreign worker program … replacing Canadians with foreign workers,” scoffed Tim Southernwood of Edmonton.
“I hope you guys are happy! You just bought yourselves a million dollars worth of bad advertising!”
Added Susie Moloney of Astoria, N.Y.: “I hope you’re boycotted right out of business.”
Controversy over the program has been growing since February after reports that dozens of Canadian oilsands workers in Alberta were laid off and replaced with temporary foreign workers from Croatia.
Ottawa also launched investigations last month after media reports that said three McDonald’s restaurants in British Columbia were allegedly violating the rules of the program.
Along with the “urgent” investigations, the federal government has also tightened the program rules. Companies are now required to do more extensive searches for local and Canadian talent, including longer and broader searches.
But that can make it nearly impossible for some small businesses to find qualified workers, said Richard Truscott, Alberta regional director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
“There is a need to tighten the program for those that attempt to misuse the program,” Truscott said.
“But what they’ve done is seriously impaired the ability for small firms to use the program in a legitimate way to find qualified people to work in their business.”
Still, many unions are up in arms over the program, which they say was never meant to be used to fill low-skilled jobs such as those found at fast food restaurants.
The B.C. Federation of Labour said it was considering launching a boycott of McDonald’s if the chain doesn’t commit to stopping the use of temporary foreign workers.
Employers such as Canadian Tire and Sears, as well as grocery stores including Loblaws, are also among major users of the program.
The government warns of “serious criminal sanctions,” including fines and jail time, if employers lie on their applications about their efforts to hire Canadians.
In the end, Nelson said she hopes all of the attention being brought to the program will result in more changes to prevent abuse, and that a clear message is delivered to her previous employers.
“I want monitoring systems to be set up so this type of thing doesn’t happen to (other) people,” Nelson said.
“And basically, I want justice out of this. What was done to us is not acceptable.”