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British Columbia Farm-worker-program recruits from Guatemala stranded in Canada without jobs

Guatemalan migrant workers meet with Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan in Vancouver, on May 24.

Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

At least 30 women who came to Canada from Guatemala last year with hopes of a job at a Vancouver-area farm have not worked a single hour since arriving in the country.

The workers, brought in under a federal program that allows them to work with only one employer, have found themselves in a desperate situation, unable to send money back home and saddled with debts to pay a recruiter who assured them they could find other work.

Their plight highlights problems with Canada’s foreign-worker program, says NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan, who has been lobbying federal officials to intercede on their behalf. Those problems include permits that tie workers to one employer and unscrupulous consultants.

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On Friday, federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced that as of June 4, migrant workers who have an employer-specific work permit and are in an abusive job situation will be able to apply for an open work permit, allowing them to move to another job.

But that measure won’t do anything to help these Guatemalan women, Ms. Kwan said: They have already applied for open work permits, but so far have been deemed ineligible because they hadn’t yet worked in Canada.

For the women, the situation is especially upsetting, because they say they did everything they could to follow the rules.

“We wanted to do everything legally, because we wanted to work,” said one of the women, speaking through a translator in an interview at the Vancouver offices of the Migrant Workers Centre. “And now we’re being told, ‘No, you can’t.' "

The Globe agreed not to name the women because they fear being blacklisted by employers or from the program.

All said they dealt with a consultant in Guatemala who helped them to apply for jobs and obtain paperwork, in the process charging fees of up to $500 a person. Under the program, workers are not supposed to pay any fees to recruiters.

The recruiter in this case has dropped out of sight and when family members went to an office where some of the women had filled out paperwork, they found it closed.

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Recent stories by The Globe and Mail have detailed problems with federal programs for foreign workers, including some recruiters and consultants demanding cash payments from international students and other foreign nationals in exchange for jobs.

B.C.'s Employment Standards Branch confirmed it is investigating 27 complaints from Guatemalan workers who allege a B.C. company, Geri Partnership, misrepresented the availability of jobs at its farming operation.

Geri Partnership is part of the Aquilini Group of companies and runs the Golden Eagle blueberry farm in Pitt Meadows. Vancouver-based Aquilini Group owns the Vancouver Canucks and Rogers Place, a downtown arena, as well as agricultural and real estate operations.

Geri Partnership is part of the Aquilini Group of companies and runs the Golden Eagle blueberry farm in Pitt Meadows.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The complaints were filed between Jan. 19 and April 5, branch spokeswoman Julianne McCaffrey said this week in an e-mail.

The complaints are separate from, and involve different workers, than complaints that resulted in a decision earlier this month that ordered directors and officers of Geri Partnership, including three members of the Aquilini family, to top up wages of workers who’d worked at Golden Eagle farm in 2018. That complaint revolved around contract wording and whether it guaranteed 40 hours of work a week.

The 27 complaints currently under investigation concern workers who say they didn’t work at all, even though they obtained work permits that listed Golden Eagle as an employer. The workers acknowledge the recruiter told them last summer that there may not be jobs at Golden Eagle but assured them they would be able to get other jobs, possibly at a fish plant – although that plant was never named.

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But that’s not the case. Under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, most workers are tied to one employer.

Under the program, employers who want to hire foreign workers must obtain a positive Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) – a ruling that says hiring foreign nationals won’t hurt the local labour market.

According to documents reviewed by The Globe and Mail, the women had LMIAs that named Geri Partnership and job contracts that named a Golden Eagle farm manager.

The workers arrived in November and December. The LMIA expired on Nov. 15. As well, the complainants acknowledge they paid their own airfare, contrary to regulations of the program that require employers to cover transportation costs. Contracts used by Golden Eagle specifically state that workers are not to pay their own transportation costs.

The workers said they were following the instructions from the recruiter.

Naz Mitha, a lawyer for the Aquilini Group, said the company learned of the new batch of complaints only this week.

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He questioned why the branch took months to raise the issue with the company – noting that some documents date back to February – and said the company is trying to determine who the women are and how they came to be in Canada. He also questioned how they were able to get work permits when it appears at least some of them arrived after the LMIA had expired.

“Why is the federal government approving these people to come in if the LMIA is expired?” he asked. Mr. Mitha said the company first heard of the women’s arrival in January and notified the Guatemalan consulate in Vancouver.

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