Here is a recent feature from The Lobby Monitor where our corporate and crisis lead Jane Shapiro weighs in on the recent rumblings to toughen up the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for the food industry. Jane offers her advice on what the industry’s next steps should be to mend relationships and get the program back up and running. This was originally published in The Lobby Monitor on May 8, 2014. 

Restaurants, cut your losses and help the minister find a long-term solution.

The government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been under attack from the opposition for over a month, leading the NDP to ask for an emergency debate on the issue and the Liberals to use an opposition day this week to debate a motion on it.

The program allows Canadian employers to temporarily hire foreign nationals where there is a skill or labour shortage and where a Canadian citizen or permanent resident cannot be found to fill the position.

McDonald’s Canada was publicly criticized for hiring temporary foreign workers at some of their Canadian locations where it may not have been necessary. The fast-food chain froze its use of the program while a third-party audit is being done on the company’s use of the program.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney has temporarily froze the use of the program by the food service industry, and said misuse of the program could result in fraud charges. Changes to it are expected.

Lobby groups are reacting, and trying to ensure their use of the program isn’t affected or the damage is minimized.

Summa Strategies consultants Tim Powers and Angela Christiano registered to lobby on behalf of McDonald’s, The Lobby Monitor reported last week, and Restaurants Canada, the Hotel Association of Canada and the Farmers of North America have issued statements in support of the program.

The Lobby Monitor turned to some PR experts for their advice for the foodservices industry. We asked them: “What can the restaurant industry say now to address the criticism of their use of the plan and also get the program back up and running?” Their answers follow.

Keith Beardsley, president, Cenco Public Affairs:

“The problem for the food service industry is that the story around the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has gotten away from them. They cannot control what will come next, especially on social media.

“They are in reactive mode—reacting to media stories, reacting to the government. This has become a huge political issue for the government and they always respond the same way: they push back hard. The industry’s best hope is to admit they lost this round and now try to minimize the damage. Jason Kenney is one of the better ministers who remains approachable. Their focus now should be on helping the minister to deal with the situation and look for a long-term solution.

“They need to provide to the minister any data they have on the program; the numbers of workers involved; and guarantee that salaries paid and working conditions will be equal to those paid to Canadian workers. They have to agree to provide proof of efforts to recruit Canadians first. They need to agree to some form of oversight body and major companies have to deal harshly with any franchisee that violates the rules.

“The companies also have to look at putting in place better social media monitoring platforms and quick reaction staff to help them better manage future outbreaks.”

Heather Chew, partner, Blueprint Public Relations:

“The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is clearly flawed. No one is coming out a winner: Canadian workers have been displaced; wages have been driven down; temporary foreign workers have been exploited; and employers who followed the rules and tried, but ultimately failed to find domestic employees, feel vilified.

“To be heard, the fast food industry must address the one issue we care most about: fairness; fairness for Canadians who need work, and for economically vulnerable, capable people who come to Canada for real opportunity.

“The suspension of the program for the food service industry is just a stopgap. A new round of rule restrictions is coming. Labour and business groups are urging Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney to change the program, both to curb abuses by employers and to ensure that industry needs for workers are met. That lobbying work is sure to continue.

“On the public-facing side, both Canadian workers—and the thousands of temporary foreign workers already on the job but in the midst of renewing their work permits—are left in limbo by the moratorium on the fast food industry.

“The fast food industry’s image of being a good starter job for young people and a viable career option for others has been tarnished by the inappropriate use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program by some—not all. To support those it represents, Restaurants Canada could publicize the percentage of their members who use the program, whether their members adhere to ethical standards (quite apart from the program), and what they are doing to remind their members about when (and how) the program applies.”

Jane Shapiro, national service leader, corporate and crisis communications, Hill+Knowlton:

“When a topic like this captures the attention of both the public and public policy makers it is important for those directly affected to participate in the discussion about an outcome that meets everyone’s needs.

“It is useful to go beyond wondering how to reinstate the status quo and to focus on creating a better solution. There is no question that governments respond far better to companies and groups who bring them answers, not problems.

“For many, the answer lies in large part in good corporate social responsibility: in reinforcing and highlighting the programs they already have but which may not be visible, and in considering what improvements might be possible. The problem may actually create an opportunity.

“But like all good corporate reputation initiatives, words and actions must be perfectly aligned. It is essential not only to do the right thing, but also to be seen to do it. So, fully integrated government relations and communications programs are the most effective approach.  It may not be amenable to a “quick fix.”