Achieving Balance: It's critical all sides get their say even if you aren't sure who's got it right

Go Public, one of CBC News’s investigative features, ran a series of stories involving employment and recruitment practices to bring temporary foreign workers to some McDonald’s restaurants across Canada. Linda West, the head of a recruitment company involved in hiring some of the workers, complained that she and her company were misrepresented in the stories. She also said that the stories lacked balance because they did not address the value the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has for employers, and how important it is in some parts of Canada. I found that her perspective was represented. And as for the bigger picture, the series was on one aspect of the program, but CBC has done other stories and reports that look at the bigger picture. CBC policy requires balance over time.

COMPLAINT

In April of this year, CBC News launched an investigative series on the hiring of foreign workers. Through its Go Public feature, it revealed questionable hiring practices at some McDonald’s restaurants in Victoria. Based on the evidence of employees, the story stated that Canadians were getting fewer shifts than foreign workers, and were having their hours cut back to accommodate them. There were also questions raised about the failure to hire qualified Canadians. Very soon after publication of the stories the employment minister, Jason Kennedy, announced the McDonald’s franchises in question would be audited. Subsequently, other employees at McDonald’s in other locations in Canada also came forward.

As more details became public, the government ultimately suspended the restaurant industry’s access to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. Go Public also did a series of stories about the working and living conditions of a group of foreign workers from Belize. Those workers had been recruited to Canada for employment at McDonald’s by your company, Actyl. Former employees spoke to CBC News about the promises they said you had made to them about potential for overtime work. They also said you had told them their employer would reimburse them for expenses incurred preparing documentation needed to get their work permits. You said you told the reporter, Kathy Tomlinson, that Actyl is a “no-fee” agency, and you denied making any such statements. You felt this was not reflected adequately in the article.

In a later email, you stated that while the reporter says she saw receipts for expenses the prospective workers had, they did not have Actyl’s name on them. In a conversation with the news director, you questioned why the allegations were mentioned at all since you had denied them.

You also pointed to some errors in the initial stories about the Victoria franchises. The story said that Canadians could only apply for part-time work through your job site, but the truth is they can apply for full-time positions as well. You were also unhappy about a quote referencing how often your company posts on the site Kijiji to recruit Canadians for jobs at McDonald’s. You mentioned that even though Service Canada, the agency that has oversight over the program, doesn’t consider it a job site, you do post jobs there. You also mentioned that you exceed the government’s guidelines by advertising on government websites for as long as it allowed. That information, along with the fact that you do post on other websites, was shared with reporter Kathy Tomlinson in an email, and you thought it should have appeared in the article, instead of the paragraphs that were published.

You were concerned that you were mentioned in the context of the Victoria stories at all, as your organization was not responsible for recruiting those workers in the first place, and you felt that was not clear in the story.

You also felt that the entire series was biased, because it did not mention any of the positive impacts that the Temporary Foreign Workers Program has had and some of the benefits it brings to Canadian workers and employers. You thought it unnecessarily focused on some isolated negative experiences. You felt there were not enough details about how the program works, and the need it fulfills. You were concerned that your commitment to hiring Canadians was not adequately reflected in the stories.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The News Director for British Columbia, Wayne Williams, responded to your concerns, based on your written complaint and subsequent phone conversations. He addressed the two quotes from the story you found problematic. He agreed with you that the story was not clear enough about whether Canadians can apply for jobs available to foreign workers, and whether Canadians can apply for full and part-time work. He told you the story was amended, and the clarification box stated, “Canadians can apply for both full-time and part-time positions.” He acknowledged that you had told him you do advertise on Kijiji, but that when the reporter went on Kijiji, she did not find any of the McDonald’s job postings:

Specifically we wrote, “Many of the open jobs currently on the Actyl site are not advertised on popular Canadian job sites like Kijiji”.

Why is that so? Immediately after that, we paraphrased your explanation this way, “Linda West of Actyl said that is because those McDonald's locations already have government approvals to hire foreign workers”.

Following that we added a direct quote: “‘We never give up on trying to recruit Canadians’, West said. ‘We have adverts up for over a year without Canadians applying’”.

He stated that there would be no revision of this part of the story because he thought it accurately reflected what you had said.

He addressed your concern about your company being mentioned in a story where you were not the recruiter. He pointed out that the language in the story made that quite clear:

The story closely focused on a franchise outlet in Victoria, British Columbia. The Actyl Group was only included -- and then in the last part of the story -- as an example of one company that does recruitment on behalf of McDonald's. The story does not say or imply that the Actyl Group has any connection to the franchise that is the focus of the story. In fact, it directly says the Actyl Group largely recruits for restaurants in other provinces.

To help readers understand how the Temporary Foreign Workers Program works and why McDonald’s uses temporary foreign workers, the story included background information about the program and the recruitment process.

In responding to your questions about the receipts and the allegations from the workers about promises you had made, he pointed out that the story does not say the receipts had your company’s name on it, and that your denial of these claims was prominently stated in the story. He explained that the story focused on the working and living experience of several workers at an Edmonton McDonald’s, and it is fair to present their views as well.

REVIEW

You have several concerns about a series of stories that went through many iterations as developments occurred, and as workers in other McDonald’s came forward with more information. The initial story that mentioned your company dealt with a group of franchises in Victoria, British Columbia. You questioned why your company was mentioned at all because you did not recruit for those particular stores. On your company’s website, you put out a statement:

On April 14, 2014, as part of its “Go Public” series, CBC News published an article and video on the hiring of temporary foreign workers in Canada, specifically in the western provinces. The article detailed alleged accounts of discrimination against Canadian employees in favor of international workers.

In one portion of the article, CBC News’s Kathy Tomlinson reported on Actyl Group’s role in recruiting international workers, misquoting President and CEO Linda West and including a number of inaccuracies. One of the biggest errors was that Actyl does not work with the Victoria company featured in the article.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for accuracy in reporting. It is a fundamental tenet of journalism. The first reference to your story follows a response from McDonald’s about the number of foreign workers it has across Canada, and mentions McDonald’s pays recruiting agencies to find workers for them. That is the context for mentioning your company, as well as the fact that the programmers’ research indicated that you were a significant recruiter for the fast food chain:

McDonald's and its franchises pay international recruitment agencies up to $2,000 for every worker they bring in.

One such agency, Actyl Group, recruits workers from the Philippines, Belize, Jamaica and Mexico, among other places. It said it brings in workers primarily for McDonald’s in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

There is no inaccuracy here and the context is clear. Later in the article you are quoted as someone with the knowledge to provide an explanation about the need for temporary foreign workers in the restaurant sector:

Last year, in Belize, Actyl head Linda West told a local TV reporter McDonald's needs young workers because Canada doesn't have enough.

“We have a very few young people. Our birth rate is 1.4 per cent, so we haven’t replaced ourselves, so our young adults are very, very few,” West said.

The traditional McDonald’s workforce or fast food warehouse has disappeared on us, so we need other people to come in and fill those jobs.

Another article in this series did have an inaccuracy and that violated CBC policy. The initial version stated that Canadians could not apply for full-time work:

Actyl’s job website is designed to attract foreign workers. It lists numerous ads for full-time jobs at McDonald’s. They all suggest Canadians can apply, but only for part-time work.

When you made CBC News staff aware of the inaccuracy, they amended the story and noted the correction in a clarification box. This fulfills the policy requirement for corrections. The story now states that Canadian workers can apply for full-time positions.

You also expressed concern about the representation of your email exchanges with Ms. Tomlinson about how and where Canadians can access job postings also geared to foreign workers. You thought she had altered the meaning of what you said. CBC News has specific policy on the editing of interviews. There is an obligation to ensure that the statements made by an interviewee are redacted in a way that does not alter the original meaning:

CBC takes responsibility for the consequences of its decision to publish a person’s statements in the context it chooses. When we present a person’s statements in support of our reporting of facts, we ensure that the statements have been diligently checked. In the case of comments made by a person expressing an honest opinion, we ensure that the opinion is grounded in facts bearing on a matter of public interest.

Here is what is published in the online version of the story:

Actyl’s job website is designed to attract foreign workers. It lists numerous ads for full-time jobs at McDonald’s.

Canadians can apply, but many of the open jobs currently on the Actyl site are not advertised on popular Canadian jobs sites like Kijiji. Linda West of Actyl said that is because those McDonald's locations already have government approvals to hire foreign workers.

“We never give up on trying to recruit Canadians,” West said. “We have had adverts up for over a year without Canadians applying.”

It does not include some of the detail you supply – that Service Canada does not consider Kijiji a job site and that government sites have restrictions that limit the amount of time a posting can stay up. The one detail that might have been included, even though it was not inaccurate to say the jobs were not available on Kijiji, is that you do advertise on other sites. But the point that you are committed to Canadian hiring is strongly reinforced in the final quote attributed to you. The level of detail, in an article that was about a much broader story, is a matter of editorial judgment. There is no violation of policy in this instance.

The last story in this series on McDonald’s workers involved a group working in Edmonton. They had been recruited by you, and a number of them (one on the record and others off the record) stated you had told them they would make overtime and that expenses incurred in preparing their documentation would be reimbursed by their employer. This turned out not to be the case, according to the workers. You say this is not true and your denial is reflected in the story. In telling stories, reporters must make reasonable efforts to verify the facts given them. Having more than one source tell you the same thing meets the standard to allow reporting of the allegations.

Another major criticism you have of this series is that there are no countervailing stories that celebrate the success of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, nor discussion about the need it fulfills in a tight labour market in provinces like Saskatchewan. This series was focused on cases of alleged abuse of the system. It provoked other revelations and a strong government response. The Temporary Foreign Workers Program has been the subject of controversy for some time, and it is in the public interest to reveal and examine instances where it might be misused. If this had been a broad series on the program, you would have a point. But it was a series about alleged abuse by McDonald’s, and the need for balance was achieved by putting forward the position of McDonald’s, its franchisees and the government of Canada, which is responsible for administering and overseeing the program. It also needed your perspective on those aspects of the story where your company was involved.

Journalism plays an important part in helping citizens understand public policy, and what impacts it has on their lives and the running of their country. The kind of work Go Public does falls well within that purpose. By definition, that means focusing on abuse of a system or process, and the potential impact that might have on all Canadians. And that was the case here. But your point is well taken: overall there should be some obligation to take a broader look at the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. In fact, while this wouldn’t fall to the Go Public team, CBC news and current affairs have done many other stories, some pointing out the impacts of the suspension of the program in communities in Saskatchewan and Labrador, for example. CBC News in Alberta covered a meeting of temporary workers affected by the moratorium on the program in the restaurant sector. It quotes the Alberta jobs minister about the negative impact this will have on the Alberta economy.

There have been analysis pieces and general articles that present a range of views – that the program undermines Canadian workers, and that it is vital to fill labour shortages in some sectors in some parts of the country. The stories done by CBC News on the Temporary Foreign Workers Program has had significant impact. It is a story still very much in development. CBC News continues to monitor and report on it. As they do so, it is important they continue to provide a range of perspectives and views and experiences.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman