McDonald's foreign workers call it 'slavery'

Jaime Montero lives with other McDonald's workers from Belize. They said they felt forced to live in an apartment far from work that they couldn't afford.

Foreign workers recruited from Belize are accusing McDonald’s Canada of treating them like "slaves," by effectively forcing them to share an expensive apartment – then deducting almost half their take-home pay as rent.

“When we arrived at the airport, they said, ‘We already have an apartment for you,’ so at that point we already know we don’t have a choice of where to live,” said Jaime Montero, who came to Edmonton with four others in September to work at McDonald’s.

"We had to live there. We were told this is what we are doing," said another worker who didn't want to be named because he still works for McDonald's.

The Belizians said their dream of making good money in Canada to send to their families quickly shattered. Instead, they pocketed less than $800 per month – which they said was barely enough to live on.

“You work for us now, so we are your owners. It’s like that, you know,” said Montero. “We felt like slaves. They just brought us and threw us on the side.”

Records from three employees show they made $11 an hour working at various McDonald’s locations and the company took $280 from their pay for rent, bi-weekly. Their remaining take-home pay for the same pay periods was roughly $350.

“[The apartment lease] contracts are signed by McDonald’s. All of our bills – utility bills – were billed [to us] under the name of McDonald’s,” said Montero.

“They brought us here and they are this big huge corporation. We felt that we didn’t have a chance to even voice our opinion to them because they had brought us here so they could ship us back whenever they wanted to," said Montero. "It was like modern day slavery."

McDonald’s housed them in a penthouse apartment in downtown Edmonton, even though they worked on the southern outskirts of the city. The corporation signed a six-month lease, which the workers said they were expected to honour as tenants.

“It was too far from work and it was very expensive,” said Montero, who said it took him an hour and a half to get to work by public transit.

“They actually said even if we leave the apartment and go rent another apartment, that McDonald’s would still deduct the rent from our salary,” said the other worker.

Since recent Go Public reports about McDonald’s practices with foreign workers, they said the corporation required all staff to sign an agreement, stipulating they would not speak to the media. 

McDonald’s fired Montero in November, after he said managers accused him of complaining online about the company and intimidating other workers, which he and the other Belizians insisted is not true.

“It was very unfair the way they did it...this was such a blow to me,” said Montero. He was also evicted from the apartment. He still has a work permit, but hasn’t been able to find another job.

“I even slept once outside in the cold. Then I found out about homeless shelters and I stayed out at the homeless shelters,” he said.

“Instead of making money here in Canada my family have had to send money.”

The rental contracts show McDonald’s paid $2,359 per month to rent the suite in the Boardwalk building. The corporation didn’t pay utilities or other extra costs. 

Five workers paying $280 bi-weekly works out to $3,030 per month. That suggests McDonald’s charged them $600 more for rent than what it paid. Go Public pointed out that discrepancy to McDonald's, but received no explanation.

The lease expired at the end of February and the Belizians have since found a more affordable apartment.

“It’s not easy and it’s not cheap to be here,” said Montero.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney told Go Public if the workers felt coerced to rent a place they didn’t want to live in, that would warrant investigation.

“No one, including an employer, can force anyone to live in a particular place. People are free to choose where they live,” said Kenney, whose department said it is looking into this case.

“It doesn’t matter whether they are a Canadian citizen, permanent resident or temporary resident, they have full mobility rights. And if any employer is somehow using ways to coerce people to stay in a particular place that would be illegal.”

Montero and the others were recruited in Belize by Actyl, a company that brings in workers from several countries for McDonald’s in Western Canada.

He said Actyl’s president Linda West made promises to workers that didn’t come true.

“It’s like a big scam they were doing in Belize — just hiring a bunch of Belizians to come to Canada,” said Montero.

Actyl has told Go Public it is a “no fee” agency, suggesting it doesn’t charge foreign workers for anything. However, receipts show they paid for visa processing and medical fees. They said they also paid bus fare to the Cancun airport and other expenses, all totalling $600 Cdn each.

According to the workers, West told them McDonald’s would reimburse them for all of that once they were in Canada.

“What she was saying was so sweet to us,” said the unnamed worker.

The Belizians said McDonald's never did pay them back. The employment minister said most other employers do cover all the foreign workers’ costs. 

“The general practice as I understand it is that employers bringing folks in from abroad do reimburse them for the cost of their work permits and we do require that the employer pays for the travel costs,” said Kenney.

The Belizians said West also promised they would make a lot of their money working overtime, but once they were in Canada, McDonald’s said there would be none of that.

“We were more excited because of the overtime, which was promised at $16.50 [an] we weren’t worrying much about the regular pay,” said Montero.

“McDonald’s [said later] it does not give overtime to foreigners.”

The job offers they signed in Belize list the possibility of overtime pay. The employment contract actually states McDonald’s will not provide housing.

“In Belize, there was nothing in the contract about where we would live,” said the unnamed worker.

When Go Public asked Linda West if she promised the workers overtime and reimbursement for costs, she answered, "Those statements are completely false."

Montero said they feel ripped off by the whole experience.

“I was making more money in Belize [working construction] than I made here in McDonald’s in Canada," he said.

NDP employment critic Jinny Sims said in light of all the recent Go Public reports about McDonald’s practices, the government should suspend all pending foreign work permits for its restaurants.

“They have demonstrated that they are absolutely abusing this program,” said Sims.

“To say you are living in company quarters and we are going to deduct your rent and if you dare say you don’t like where we put you we’re going to charge you anyway...that seems like indentured labour to me.”

McDonald's Canada spokesperson Richard Ellis confirmed the terms of the apartment rental arrangement. He also responded to all of this by pointing out Montero is disgruntled.

"He was let go after only two months on the job and within his probationary period," said Ellis. "Respectfully, I suggest the input of an obviously disgruntled former employee is hardly the type of information you should be using to base your report."

Submit your story ideas to Kathy Tomlinson at Go Public

Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter