Some call it the immigration industry’s dirty little secret: Service-sector businesses in Canada, including brand-name fast-food franchisees, taking large cash payoffs for giving international students and other foreign nationals jobs – at least on paper – that they need to obtain permanent residency in Canada, according to lawyers, immigration consultants and employers.
Multiple sources came forward about the payoffs to employers – up to $20,000 – after a Globe and Mail investigation published in April identified 45 recruiters and immigration consultants accused of exploiting more than 2,000 people, primarily by charging them thousands of dollars for jobs in Canada.
The sources said the payments to employers are cash transactions, illegal and virtually impossible to trace, which come straight out of the exorbitant fees that immigration consultants collect from the foreign nationals for arranging the job offers for them.
The Globe interviewed three dozen people, including some international students, most of whom said they had direct knowledge of the lucrative deals. They cited 31 situations in which they said employers collected substantial cash fees.
Several students told The Globe the employers also made them work longer hours than payroll records reflect, for less hourly pay and no overtime. Some said they had to pay back a portion of their wages, in cash, and cover payroll taxes the employers remitted on their behalf.
One recent example came from immigration consultant Roxanne Jessome. She said a restaurant owner called her to ask if it was legal to accept money in exchange for job offers. He had been talking to a Subway restaurant franchisee with numerous outlets in B.C. who suggested it was a good way to bring in extra cash and retain workers, Ms. Jessome said.
“This guy was telling him, ‘You should do this stuff with your [foreign] workers,’ ” said Ms. Jessome, who teaches ethics at the University of British Columbia. The owner of the Subway franchises said he had just hired 20 Indian nationals, she said, in a deal with a Canadian immigration consultant or a lawyer.
She said the restaurant owner was told each foreign worker was charged $12,000 for the arrangement, which would give them enough job experience to get permanent residency. “[The Subway owner] gets a kickback from that … he made it sound like the split was 50-50.”
As Ms. Jessome told her caller, it is illegal to charge a fee for giving someone a job.
Subway Canada declined The Globe’s request to interview someone from the company, but said in a statement it is “troubled by the allegations” and expects franchisees to “treat employees fairly, and to fully comply with all labour law requirements.”
It also pointed out that franchisees do their own hiring and Subway “is not involved in those decisions.”
In the cases The Globe has compiled since its initial investigation, foreign nationals said they paid consultants as much as $40,000 for a position in a restaurant, gas station, retail or convenience store.
The Globe is not identifying most of the franchisees or other individual employers said to be involved. That is partly because sources could not provide proof of the cash payoffs, which generate no records. Moreover, the closer people were to these arrangements, the more they feared repercussions for naming those involved.
Shivdev Parmar, an immigration consultant in Surrey, B.C., said three employers approached him in recent months offering jobs for his clients, priced at $20,000 apiece.
“They will collect it from me in cash,” Mr. Parmar said the employers told him. “The foreign national will never be able to know, but [payment] comes from their money.”
He declined the offers, he said, because accepting would be “unethical” and he doesn’t want to be a “tool of somebody’s exploitation." He said the cases indicate how prevalent these practices are.
The arrangements The Globe was told about are primarily in B.C., but lawyers who have worked in Ontario said similar deals, in which employers are paid to give jobs to foreign nationals, also happen in the Greater Toronto Area. Sources said the fees are substantially higher when and where jobs are scarce.
“It is going to have a serious implication for the rest of society,” Mr. Parmar said. “Basically you are distorting the labour market.”
By all accounts, the practices are deeply entrenched in some sectors. Even B.C.’s Minister of Labour, Harry Bains, said he has heard such scenarios are “rampant.”
“We are going to do whatever we can under our jurisdiction to put a stop to this,” said Mr. Bains, who promised new provincial rules will allow audits of suspect employers, and “there is potential for jail time.”
Gurpreet Kaur, one of several international students The Globe interviewed, said a consultant recently told her he could get her a job with one of his fast-food chain clients. The price: $40,000 in installments. She turned the offer down.
“First of all, I would have to pay that money and it is really hard – $40,000 – and it seems like whatever I am going to get from that job I would have to pay to the consultant for two years, so I would be working for nothing,” Ms. Kaur said.
After the money changes hands, lawyers and consultants say, service-sector employers often hire the foreign nationals as supervisors or managers – because job experience in those categories helps them qualify for permanent residency. In reality, many said they are made to do menial work for meagre wages and have to remain in the job, no matter what, to get their immigration approvals.
Amritpal Singh, a former international student in Toronto, said many friends have fallen into that trap after shelling out tens of thousands of dollars, first for tuition and then for jobs.
"They are stuck there because, the owners of the restaurant, they also promise if they work there, we can help you with your immigration,” Mr. Singh said.
The key is that international students who can show skilled work experience with the backing of an employer – even if they didn’t do the work – earn significant points toward permanent residency. They can do that through the federal Express Entry system and provincial immigrant nominee programs that require employer sponsorship.
Prashant Ajmera, a prominent immigration lawyer in India who has an office in Montreal, estimates three out of every 10 clients he sees in Canada looking for help with their immigration cases paid $30,000 to $40,000 for a job, which included a large cut for the employer.
“[The client] will do everything he possibly can just to get his immigration,” Mr. Ajmera said, adding that most never complain, “even if they feel they have been cheated.”
Some of the employees are given little or no work, Mr. Ajmera and other industry insiders said. They cash their paycheques, then give money back to the employer and use the fake job experience to count toward permanent residency. They often survive by working at other precarious jobs for cash under the table.
Employers “don’t have much patience to work with these employees because their English isn’t good,” Mr. Ajmera said. “They want the money [from consultants], they don’t want them. So they will keep them for a certain amount of time and then say, ‘Okay, I don’t need you – but I will do the [government] paper for you.’”
Gurinderpal Singh, who founded a youth group in Victoria, said he knows several international students who graduated then ended up at the mercy of such employers.
Last year, Mr. Singh said, one young man’s fast-food chain employer told him he would sponsor him for immigration only if remained on call for work 24/7. Payroll records, which Mr. Singh said he saw, showed that he worked 40 hours a week at $25 an hour as a manager.
Mr. Singh said he actually worked 70 hours for the same pay, and gave his employer cash back to cover payroll taxes.
He said he suggested the young man complain to the labour ministry, but "the guy said I am not going to because I am scared that something will happen with my immigration,” Mr. Singh said.
The practice is well known, Mr. Singh said, even within government. “Everyone knows about it. I know that because I deal with a lot of these political people and we raise it with them.”
Subway restaurant franchises were mentioned more often than any other business by numerous sources, including Mr. Singh, as being heavily involved in the deals with immigration consultants.
One such case involves a Subway worker in B.C., whom The Globe is not naming because he fears losing his job and immigration sponsorship.
He said he came to Canada when he was 17 as an international student. After graduating from a private career college, he got a minimum-wage job at a Subway franchise. He said he worked up to 60 hours a week, but received only $10 an hour, in cash, for his overtime and had to repay the owner for payroll taxes.
He said his boss refused to sponsor him for permanent residency under B.C.’s provincial nominee program unless he had the paperwork done by a consultant the employer does business with. That consultant charged him $11,000.
“I said to my employer, ‘I don’t want to pay that much,’ and he said, ‘Everyone is paying [more than that] – $25,000 or $30,000 – and we are doing you a favour by giving you papers,’” he said.
The Subway employee said he is working at a second job to pay the consultant. He believes his employer received a large chunk of the fee, because he said his boss made it clear he had a deal with the consultant that included the non-negotiable fee. He has to work at the Subway for another nine months to qualify for permanent residency.
“So they get cheap labour and they get money from the consultant,” he said, adding that he takes home $600 to $700 a week. “I cannot quit. I am stuck … I am paying my rent and after that all the money just goes to the taxes and the consultants.”
He said his employer owns other franchises in B.C., and two other foreign nationals working at his location also paid for jobs they can’t leave.
Simar Grewal said a consultant told him that, for $8,000 cash, he could have a job at a Subway franchise in Chilliwack, B.C. It was at the supervisor level, he said, but, as in the other cases, he would actually work at a lower position, for less hourly pay.
“The consultant said: ‘You are going to work at the Subway for a basic wage and we are going to hype up your wage [on paper] while you work more hours,’ ” Mr. Grewal said.
He said he spent a few hours at the restaurant before deciding the deal wasn’t worth it. When contacted by The Globe, the owner of that Subway, Ravinder Bahia, declined to comment.
Four of his franchise’s employees filed complaints with B.C.’s employment standards branch in recent years, claiming they were underpaid. The employer faced no penalty in three of the cases, after paying the workers what they were owed. One other complaint is still open.
A Subway franchisee in Aldergrove, B.C., which also hires mostly foreign nationals, was fined $5,000 for underpaying workers after an investigation by the province last year. That business had to remit $7,000 in back pay to 18 employees from two locations.
Employers looking to hire or sponsor foreign workers are often required by government to advertise the jobs first.
In a survey of government job websites last month, The Globe found 221 jobs advertised at 67 Subway outlets in B.C. alone – an average of 3.3 full-time job openings per location. Nearly half were for food-service supervisors or restaurant managers – categories that earn foreign nationals points toward permanent residency.
There were 98 postings just for restaurant managers at Subway locations nationwide, which is more than all the management jobs advertised by Tim Hortons, McDonalds, Burger King and A&W combined.
Subway has 3,161 locations in Canada, which makes it the second-largest fast-food business. Subway Canada said it doesn’t usually track job postings, but told The Globe it will now “look into it.”
Subway is not the only fast-food operation whose franchisees work with immigration consultants who then offer to share large portions of their fees.
The owner of 11 Burger King outlets in B.C. who said he uses two immigration consulting firms told The Globe he gets calls “every week” from other consultants and agents offering him money in exchange for providing employment for their job-seeking clients.
“It is done everywhere. There are a lot of people who are doing this,” Burger King franchisee Goetz Munoz said. “[Foreign workers] are being treated like animals … very, very, ugly … you have only scratched the surface.”
Mr. Munoz said one immigration consultant he met with told him she would charge workers $25,000 a job and give him a cut of those fees.
“She said I have a lot of employees I can bring you and I am willing to share my earnings with you,” he said.
Mr. Munoz said he didn’t hire any employees through that consultant. He said he has hired several international students, plus a handful of workers through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, but with the help of another agency.
The Globe asked the federal department in charge of that program if it is aware of any employers taking cash from consultants for job offers and underpaying their employees.
Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) said it has sent cases “involving the issue you have raised” to the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency for investigation.
Immigration consultant Matthew Iwama and others said the federal government should do much more about this. Mr. Iwama said the biggest obstacle to ending the exploitation and greed is the reality that all parties, including governments, that want young immigrant workers are effectively in on the deals.
“It’s the complicity of the employee and the employer … with these people being desperate and being willing to do anything with the ultimate goal of permanent residence status,” he said.