PITT MEADOWS (NEWS 1130) — Dozens of temporary foreign workers at a farm in Pitt Meadows owned by Vancouver’s Aquilini family have scored in their dispute over unpaid wages.
One hundred and seventy-four employees at the Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm were promised a 40-hour work week for six months, but were given only about one month of full-time work before work assignments were reduced.
The Ministry of Labour has ordered the Aquilini’s pay the workers more than $130,000.
.@bcfed is welcoming a decision ordering the family that owns the @Canucks to pay 174 temporary foreign workers more than $130K. The Ministry of Labour ruling involves allegations of wage theft at the Aquilini family's Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm in #PittMeadows. @NEWS1130
— Marcella Bernardo (@Bernardo1130) May 16, 2019
BC Fed President Laird Cronk accuses the family of ‘wage theft.’
“One of BC’s wealthiest families has been ordered to pay wages for the vulnerable temporary foreign workers they employed. The decision shows that the farm withheld work and were not paying them the wages they were entitled to under their contract,” he says in a press release.
The owners of the Canucks have also been fined $53,000 by WorkSafeBC for transporting farm workers in a vehicle that’s not safe.
The BCFed is using this situation to call for more protections for temporary foreign workers. It argues they are vulnerable to being sent home or blacklisted if they report health and safety concerns about employers or apply for workers compensation.
“The best way to protect temporary foreign workers is not to tie their status to a single employer,” Cronk says. “They should be on track for permanent residency upon arrival for those who chose it. With a change in status, we may have a chance to organize these vulnerable workers into unions and negotiate fairer working conditions.”
Most workers were women from Guatamala
Byron Cruz of the Sanctuary Health Collective became involved when workers ran out of food.
“Some had fewer hours, some had no hours at all. We were contacted when some of the workers were not working for two or three weeks and that’s why they didn’t have money to buy food.”
Golden Eagle Blueberry employs people from Jamaica, Mexico and Guatamala. He says the majority of the 174 who filed the complaint are women from Guatamala, who spent their life-savings and more to come to Canada.
He points out most of them have returned to the Central American country.
Although the Employment Standards Act forbids employers or other persons from charging a fee in exchange for employment, Cruz says many of the workers paid fees to recruiting agencies in Guatamala.
“In order to come to Canada they had to ask for loans at banks in Guatamala. The banks were asking them to repay the money. When they returned to Guatamala they didn’t have the money. They couldn’t pay those loans,” says Cruz.
He says because they haven’t been able to repay the loans, many people haven’t been able to support their kids. He notes the $130,000 has to be divided up between all of the claimants.
“Five hundred or six hundred dollars is not going to solve the situation. Many of them are in extreme poverty. Five hundred dollars is going to be like a little oxygen.”
The foreign workers were making $11.35 an hour.
Cruz is pushing for foreign workers to be eligible for permanent residency, which would give them the right to switch jobs.
The federal government is poised to make changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program. Cruz believes the changes will involve ‘open work’ permits to allow farm workers to be able to pick up work at other farms. But Cruz says the workers would still be vulnerable to poor working conditions.