At least 10 of nearly 30 Guatemalan women who came to British Columbia to work only to find their promised jobs did not exist have been offered jobs by a new employer.
But it could take up to three months for Ottawa to issue new permits that would allow the women to start working, a delay advocates say would push the women deeper into debt and make it more likely that some will return to Guatemala without having earned any money.
The women, who spoke to a Globe and Mail reporter in May with the help of a translator, said they used loans and savings to come to B.C. and that it could take months, or even years, to earn enough money in Guatemala to recoup those costs
The women’s plight has highlighted problems with Canada’s foreign-worker program, including unscrupulous consultants and work permits that tie workers to one employer.
“These women were already forced to pay recruiting fees, their own travel costs, and have been paying unreasonably high rents despite substandard living conditions,” Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan wrote in a June 12 letter to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.
“The additional wait to begin work could be financially crippling,” she added.
Ms. Kwan has asked federal authorities to expedite work permit applications for 10 women who have been offered jobs with a B.C. mushroom farming operation and to issue open work permits for other women in the group.
In an e-mail Friday, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesman Rémi Larivière said he couldn’t comment on specific cases, citing privacy laws. The processing time for online applications is currently listed at 96 days.
Although Canadian regulations prohibit temporary foreign workers from being charged recruiting fees or paying their own transportation costs, the women all say they paid a recruiter in Guatemala and also paid their own airfare to Vancouver.
By coming to Canada, they hoped to earn enough in a few months to pay off their debts, build some savings and send money to relatives back home.
But once they arrived, the women didn’t end up working. The employer named on their work permits – Golden Eagle Farms, owned by Vancouver’s Aquilini family – says it didn’t know the women were coming to Vancouver.
B.C.'s Employment Standards Branch in May confirmed it is investigating complaints from 27 Guatemalan workers who allege Geri Partnership, which runs Golden Eagle, misrepresented the availability of farm worker positions.
Since arriving, they’ve been living in a crowded rental house and relying on help from church and advocacy groups.
The women came to B.C. with employer-specific permits, which tie workers to one employer.
The Aquilini Group says it is co-operating with the provincial investigation but says it only learned details of the 27 women’s predicament in May, when the branch provided written complaints to the company, even though complaints had been filed as early as January.
The company says it has been conducting its own review and blames an unscrupulous recruiter in Guatemala and an administrative lapse by the company.
Under federal regulations, employers that want to hire temporary foreign workers in agriculture typically must obtain a positive Labour Market Impact Assessment, or LMIA, to prove the workers are needed and that no Canadians are available for the jobs.
The 27 Guatemalan women came to Canada under an LMIA issued to Geri Partnership.
But the company didn’t intend to hire the women, didn’t pay for their flights to Canada and so didn’t expect them to come, Aquilini counsel Naz Mitha said on Thursday.
The company did not notify Canadian officials of changes to its LMIA, as required under the program, which meant the women were still able to enter the country.
The LMIA for the women should have been cancelled but that “slipped through the cracks,” Mr. Mitha said.
“In 15 years, we’ve probably brought in 1,500 workers. Every single one of those workers, we’ve paid for their flight,” Jim Chu, senior vice-president at Aquilini Group, said.
“So the farm manager is thinking ... ‘I’m not going to pay for their [workers’] flight, so they’re not coming.' That’s what happened. Somebody exploited a loophole ... and managed to get these women to Canada," Mr. Chu said.
Mr. Chu said the company has ended its relationship with that recruiter and in the future, will deal only with recruiters approved by the Guatemalan consulate.
In a separate case, B.C.'s Employment Standards Branch in May ordered Golden Eagle to top up wages of some Guatemalan workers who had worked at the farm in 2018. That decision revolved around whether the workers’ contracts guaranteed 40 hours of work a week. The branch concluded those were the terms of the contract and ordered the company to pay about $130,000 in wages and vacation pay to employees.