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The Aquilini group claims workers in Guatemalan blueberry complain after learning that they will be sent home

The Aquilini group responded after being forced by a branch of the Ministry of Labor to pay over $ 130,000 in salaries to temporary foreign workers at a Pitt Meadows berry farm.

In the prepared statement released to farmers on Tuesday, Jim Chu, Senior Vice President of Aquilini Group, said the complaint was filed with the authorities by a group of 15 Guatemalan workers who had previously left the farm in "direct violation of their work" permits ".

Chu, a former police chief in Vancouver, said the Golden Eagle farm hired temporary foreign workers from countries like Mexico, Jamaica and the Philippines for decades. He said that many long-term employees have been granted permanent residence status in Canada and have still worked on a farm that has nearly 2000 workers during the peak summer months.

"We first brought workers from Guatemala in 2017 and they were hardworking and they looked happy," Chu wrote. "The Guatemalan workers were returned in 2018 and we noticed more" urban "people, unlike the" farmers "who worked for us a year ago.

"Some of these new workers leave the farm suddenly and without warning shortly after arriving. This was reported to (the Canadian Border Services Agency). In September 2018, after the end of the blueberries season, we began to return the remaining seasonal workers back to their home countries. At that time, much more than the Guatemalan workers have disappeared from the farm, which runs counter to their work permits. We heard that most went to the United States, and a group of 15 people stayed in Canada.

He heard that this group of 15 people had filed complaints claiming they had been mistreated "only after they were told they had to go home."

He said that in a recent WorkSafeBC mediation a workers' representative requested $ 100,000 for himself and $ 225,000 for the complainants in exchange for the withdrawal of complaints.

"We thought this was blackmail and we did not pay," Chu wrote.

Last week, the Labor Standards Office's decision found that the Aquilini family, which owns Vancouver Canucks and Rogers Arena, violates the labor market impact assessment contracts that provide six months of full-time work for Golden Eagle Farm workers .

Instead, 174 workers who came to Guatemala in Canada, expecting 40-hour work weeks for half a year, were given only about a month of full-time work before their hours were reduced.

Chu said that in the blueberries that depend on the right time for harvesting, full-time can not be guaranteed.

"The recent decision of the Employment Standards Branch focused only on the wording in Guatemala's employment contract. The intention of the employer is that this new contract will calm the structure of established Mexican and Jamaican labor contracts that allow us to send workers home six months ago and pay an average of 40 hours per week rather than a minimum.

"The amount of the decision relates to the way the contract is interpreted and whether 40 hours is guaranteed a minimum of one week. Unlike some news stories, we have never kept any payments for hours worked. Workers have always been fully paid. "

In addition to the order for payment of wages, paid leaves and interest, the labor norms impose the fine of the aquilines 500 dollars.

Julian McCaffrey, BC spokeswoman. The Labor Ministry has confirmed last week that the Employment Standards Branch investigated the case of 375 Golden Eagle farmers in 2018 following a claim for unlawful salaries and found that 174 of these employees were owed money. The largest amount due to a separate complainant is $ 1,943.27, while the average amount is $ 768.61.

Wages payable are determined by documentation provided to the federal government for foreign nationals who are receiving work permits in Canada. These documents guarantee workers 40 hours of work each week, McCaffrey said.

Naz Mita, a Golden Eagle lawyer, told Postmedia News last week that acillis have paid their workers for every hour they worked, and the conflict is a misunderstanding about the terms of employment contracts.

"The key question was whether the contract signed by some workers gave them a six-month guarantee for at least 40 hours a week," he said. "Of course, the Aquilini group did not mean that it was the purpose of the contract.

"They understood that the contract means you work for up to 40 hours, not that you are guaranteed 40 hours. The decision has contracted against us that this is not the correct interpretation. "

Mita said Aquilini Group plans to pay all outstanding amounts. They also want to reformulate the contracts to ensure that the language is clear and "there will be no misrepresentation in the future".

"This is not an example of a large group trying to exploit people who are obviously vulnerable," Mita said. "They take care of their workers."

Earlier this month, the aquilines were fined $ 53,000 for the use of a dangerous vehicle to transport workers to the same farm.

Chu's statement says that the employer did not know that the vehicle was dangerous because it was not reported by the worker responsible for driving the vehicle.

"The facts are that last summer foreign workers were driving a car, even though it knew there was a mechanical defect. He did not report this defect to his manager and used the car without permission. "

He heard that the farm has already hired a manager for health and safety at work.


with files from Harrison Mooney

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