Six Guatemalan women who worked last year on Golden Eagle farms in Pitt Meadows spoke out Tuesday about crammed housing with little privacy, lack of drinking water out in berry fields and working in refrigerated conditions without proper clothing.
Mirsa Martinez, at a media conference in Vancouver at the Dignidad Migrante Society office, said 76 women were living in one house on 203rd Street in Pitt Meadows that had no garbage pickup, a leaking dishwasher and only 10 showers.
Martinez also said she had to work in the refrigerated section of one of the processing plants, where temperatures dropped to 4 C, without warm clothing.
Another worker told of working in the hot sun without regular access to drinking water and with pesticides being sprayed nearby.
Gloria Suy Hernandez told of living in one house where 22 female workers lived, with only three bathrooms and where farm managers sometimes checked bedrooms at night to ensure everyone was there. She injured her arm on the job but said she didn’t report it in case she wouldn’t be called back to work the following summer.
“It was on that farm we lived the saddest part of our lives,” she said.
The six women were among the 174 workers awarded back pay this month after an investigation by the Employment Standards Branch.
All six are now working at other, non-agricultural jobs on an open work permit.
David Fairey, with the B.C. Employment Standards Coalition, said the women should be recognized for their courage in putting their names forward at the risk of not being allowed back in Canada.
He called for higher penalties for employers who break contracts and said the employment branch should be allowed to go on to farms to investigate working conditions.
Raul Gatica, with Dignidad, said the women left the farm accommodations after a month and a half and moved elsewhere and were still available for work, but were never called back.
— phil melnychuk (@philmelny) May 28, 2019
Golden Eagle Blueberry Farms of Pitt Meadows, on May 13, was ordered to pay more than $131,000 to top up wages and vacation pay owed to temporary foreign workers, following an investigation.
Golden Eagle Blueberry Farms is part of the Golden Eagle Farm Group, a subsidiary of the Aquilini Investment Group, which owns the Vancouver Canucks.
The Aquilini Group issued a response to the workers late Tuesday.
“This is the first we have heard of many of these claims, and we intend to investigate them fully,” said Jim Chu, senior vice-president with the Aquilini Group.
“Having said that, many of the allegations are extreme, unfounded and false; the claim that water was withheld is particularly egregious.”
Chu added that every year Golden Eagle employs hundreds of workers to fill seasonal positions, and that no Canadians apply for them, which is why it utilizes the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.
He said foreign workers live in housing that is inspected annually, and in 2018 was found to be in compliance.
This letter went out to media seeking a response to allegations made by temporary foreign workers at our Golden Eagle Farm. pic.twitter.com/6Xd9Q3Ao2p
— Francesco Aquilini (@fr_aquilini) May 29, 2019
According to the Ministry of Labour, following a complaint, the Employment Standards Branch investigated payments made between March and September last year for 375 employees.
Based on that investigation, the branch found that 174 employees were determined to be owed wages, adding up to a total of $131,631. An administrative penalty of $500, plus interest, was added on for a total amount payable of $134,237.
The ministry said that the amounts owed were determined by work permit documentation submitted to the federal government, saying the workers would get 40 hours of work a week.
“Payroll records obtained by the Employment Standards Branch demonstrate that employees at Golden Eagle did not receive as many hours as promised per their work contracts,” the ministry said.
The payment order basically entails topping up the wages of the workers who didn’t get the required number of hours.
“The initial complaints about wages were lodged only after Guatemalan workers were told they had to return home,” Chu said.
“In a mediation process, an advocate told Golden Eagle that the complaints would be dropped if Golden Eagle paid the advocate $100,000 and the group of women $225,000. Golden Eagle considered this extortive and refused to pay.”
Golden Eagle Farm Group lawyer Naz Mitha said previously that Golden Eagle interpreted the contract as saying that workers would get an average of 40 hours per week, sometimes more and sometimes less, but not that every worker was guaranteed 40 hours every week.
This letter went out to Aquilini employees, giving them the background to recent news stories about our Golden Eagle Farm. pic.twitter.com/3BoXhF1vWq
— Francesco Aquilini (@fr_aquilini) May 21, 2019
“They always perceived the contract, you get an average of 40 hours a week, depending on the weather, and other things like that,” Mitha said, adding that some weeks were longer than 40 hours.
The company, though, will comply, he said, adding that all workers got paid for whatever hours they had worked.
A recent WorkSafeBC’s review decision also told “Golden Eagle farms” to pay a fine of $53,690 levied in October, following an inspection last summer of a bus used to carry workers.
The vehicle was checked at a farm in Pitt Meadows in August, by both a WorkSafe officer and Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement officer.
The officers found a leak in the compressor discharge line, a deteriorating front airbag and a loose rear battery. They determined the vehicle, “described as a bus,” was unsafe and ordered it removed from service, said a decision by WorkSafe’s review division.