Foodservice industry backs immigration reform; Says immigrant employee base is key to growth

The foodservice industry, whose employees are largely composed of documented and undocumented immigrants, is backing the White House's immigration policies, noting specifically that its growth is dependent on the quantity and quality of its employee base.

The White House has proposed that immigrants currently in the United States be allowed to work for up to three years. The National Restaurant Association, Washington, DC, in statements issued last month, voiced support for the proposal.

"We are encouraged by President Bush's remarks and his continuing recognition that the current legal immigration system needs reform. The restaurant industry is the nation's largest employer of immigrants, currently 1.4 million, with a long and proud history of providing career opportunities to people from all cultures and backgrounds," said Steven C. Anderson, president and ceo. "We believe that immigrants, who work hard, pay taxes and contribute to our nation's economy, deserve an opportunity to earn legal status and live the American dream."

The association also expressed support for efforts by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Tom Daschle (D-SD) to craft bipartisan legislation to address immigration reform. "It is clear that Congress is responding to the Administration's call to bring this issue to the forefront, and we are pleased by the framework and direction that this legislation lays out in addressing the inherent problem that currently exists with the country's immigration system," said Lee Culpepper, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy.

The NRA pointed out in its statements that today's immigrants are having a substantial impact on the restaurant industry's ethnic cuisines, as well as its management and workforce. It stated that 20% of eating-and-drinking-place owners are Hispanic or Asian, and 25% of the restaurant industry's chefs are Hispanic.

Rick Schnieders, chairman and ceo, Sysco Corp. Houston, the country's largest distributorship, speaking with ID Access, noted the immigrants' role in the development of culinary and cultural diversity across America. Restaurants that are owned by ethnic Americans or women add to the vitality of the foodservice industry, which is its primary draw, he said. "Consumers are looking for variety. It's always important to have new ideas, new products and in this case new restaurants and that won't happen unless we have an openness to other cultures," Schnieders observed.

While explaining to ID Access that the Multi-Cultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance does not takes sides on political issues, Gerry Fernandez, president of the Providence, RI-based industry group, noted that it is very sensitive about this issue. "The industry is going to have to get on the same page on this issue because our Hispanic workforce is too important to the industry overall. Some of the companies' employee base is 50% Hispanic or Latino. When there are issues that impact that much of a workforce, we, as an industry, need to be very interested in it," Fernandez said.

Though some companies have demonstrated an interest in their immigrant employees' plight and have made efforts to understand it and provide help, the concern is not universal, he noted.

The upcoming August MFHA conference, he said, will address this question "head on" by providing a forum "to discuss the challenges and opportunities for the industry and what we could be doing to support our Hispanic employees."

Fernandez continued: "If we say they're important to us, then we have to support them. The first way to do that is to find out the issues. If you talk with leaders in our industry, I'm not sure they would have a balanced perspective on the challenges of the immigration issue."

The principal reason for supporting these employees, Fernandez emphasized, is that they are the backbone of the industry's business rebound.

"The approach should be that of the NRA: we need to support our employees. If we have employees that have immigration issues then we should do everything we can to support them to the fullest extent that we're capable of. If we didn't have the Latino workforce right now our industry would not be in a growth mode. We will have more diversity not less in the future. We need to be clear on what the issues are and we have to talk to our elected officials about getting a coherent discussion on immigration," he said.

Schnieders believes it would be beneficial for the industry if immigration to America increases because that's part of the American heritage that has made the country and the foodservice industry strong. However, it's not merely a matter of manual laborers in any segment of the supply chain, he pointed out, but also the intellectual talent that can be tapped from those who enter the country from other cultures.

Sysco, which has been in the forefront of supporting multicultural and gender diversity issues in the industry, has a Diversity Office, headed by Lori Wolner, which cooperates with the MFHA, and Schnieders encourages other distribution executives to take an interest in the issue as well.