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Guatemalan workers accuse management of harassment at Aquilini blueberry farm

Last Updated May 28, 2019 at 10:50 pm PDT

A group of women from Guatemala claim they were forced to live and work under appalling conditions at a Pitt Meadows blueberry farm. (Ash Kelly, NEWS 1130 Photo)

PITT MEADOWS (NEWS 1130) – A group of women from Guatemala claim they were forced to live and work under appalling conditions at a Pitt Meadows blueberry farm.

The women worked at the Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm, owned by the Aquilini Group.

They say conditions were unsafe and workplace injuries went untreated. The claims also accuse the owner of the farm, Luigi Aquilini, of denying the temporary foreign workers water breaks during long hot summertime shifts.

“Mr. Aquilini came and told them that if they don’t work an hour and bring 15 pounds of blueberries, he wouldn’t let them take some water,” a translator for Mirsa Martinez said. “He stayed with them for an hour until they finished that hour of work, and after the hour when he saw the blueberries, he’d say ‘Ok, now you can go and drink some water.”

Seven female workers spoke out against the Aquilinis and farm management on Tuesday.

“They said when they were eating on the field, sometimes they would pass with the pesticides and they didn’t respect our time eating, and they just sprayed during that time,” Martinez said through the translator.

The workers say without the help of Dignidad Migrant Society, they would still be working and living in unacceptable conditions.

The women claim management constantly harassed and threatened them with deportation.

“She was living in a house with 22 women, where the managers could go inside of the bedrooms whenever they wanted,” the translator explained. “Plus, sometimes, by night they go over the rooms counting [the women] to see that they were there, and they have to be laying on the beds to let them count them.”

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Labour ordered the Aquilinis pay dozens of temporary foreign workers at the Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm more than $130,000 after a complaint lodged against the group claimed 174 employees were given only about one month of full-time work before work assignments were reduced. They had been promised a 40-hour work week for six months.

On May 21, Francesco Aquilini shared a statement by the group, stressing that “every worker, including those that made the complaint, were paid in full for the hours that they worked and in line with the wages that were set out in their signed contract.”

“The recent adjudication by the Employment Standards Branch centred only on the wording in the Guatemalan labour contract,” the statement read. “The employer intention was that this new contract would parallel the structure of the established Mexican and Jamaican worker contracts that allow us to send workers home before six months, and to pay an average of 40 hours a week, not a minimum.”

The group added that while it admits improvements can be made, it called the “failure at the farm and surrounding media publicity” a “disservice to the vast majority of Aquilini employees who work diligently to maintain safety at their workplaces.”

The group has since hired a Health and Safety manager, it said, as well as implemented a “real-time and online reporting of inspections and injuries.”

Francesco Aquilini shared another statement on Twitter after the further allegations were made on May 28.

The statement said: “This is the first we have heard of many of these claims, and we intend to investigate them fully. Having said that, many of the allegations are extreme, unfounded and false; the claim that water was withheld is particularly egregious.”