Workers at a blueberry farm eat beside a field.
Peter Battistoni / Vancouver Sun
One of B.C.’s wealthiest families has been ordered by a branch of the Ministry of Labour to pay more than $130,000 in unpaid wages owed to temporary foreign workers at a Pitt Meadows berry farm.The office of the director of employment standards this week found the Aquilini family, which owns the Vancouver Canucks and Rogers Arena, to be in violation of labour market impact assessment contracts stipulating six months of full-time work for workers at the Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm.Instead the 174 workers, who came to Canada from Guatemala expecting 40-hour work weeks for half a year, were given only about one month of full-time work before their hours were reduced.In addition to ordering the paying of back wages, vacation pay and interest, Employment Standards fined the Aquilinis $500.Julianne McCaffrey, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Labour, confirmed that the branch had investigated the case of 375 Golden Eagle farm workers in 2018 following a complaint of improper wages, and found that 174 of those employees were owed money. The largest amount owing to an individual complainant was $1,943.27, while the average amount was $768.61.The wages owed were determined by documentation submitted to the federal government for foreign nationals obtaining work permits for employment in Canada. These documents guaranteed workers 40 hours of work each week, said McCaffrey.Naz Mitha, legal counsel for Golden Eagle, said the Aquilinis paid their workers for every hour they worked and the conflict boiled down to a misunderstanding over the terms of the workers’ contracts.“The key issue was whether the contract signed by certain workers gave them a guarantee of six months work for 40 hours minimum per week,” he said. “Certainly, the Aquilini Group did not contemplate that’s what the contract meant.“They understood the contract to mean you work up to 40 hours, not that you’re guaranteed 40 hours. The ruling has come down against us saying that’s not the correct interpretation.”The Aquilinis have the right to appeal the decision to the Employment Standards Tribunal until June 20, but Mitha said they intend to pay all the amounts outstanding. They will also look to changing the contracts to ensure the language is clear and “there’s no misrepresentation in the future.” “This is not an example of a large group trying to exploit people who clearly are vulnerable,” Mitha said. “They do care for their workers.”The ministry has also referred the matter to other regulatory agencies that have jurisdiction over other allegations the workers made that are outside the scope of the Employment Standards Act.B.C.’s Minister of Labour Harry Bains said it is always “very concerning” to hear about mistreated workers.“Employers in B.C. have a legal obligation to uphold employment standards and safe working conditions. Worker rights and protections must be respected. As minister of labour, this has been my focus from day one,” Bains said in an emailed statement on Friday.Bains said the government has introduced amendments to the Employment Standards Act that will help make the complaint process easier, fairer and more effective. He also introduced the new Temporary Foreign Worker Protection Act last year to “better protect people coming to work in B.C. against workplace exploitation and abuse.”Laird Cronk, the B.C. Federation of Labour president, condemned the Aquilini’s actions in a news release Thursday.“The decision shows that the farm withheld work and were not paying them the wages they were entitled to under their contract.”The payment order comes seven months after the federation filed a third-party complaint to federal and provincial government agencies about the Golden Eagle workers, alleging lack of adherence to working hours, unsanitary living conditions, and threats.While the decision and payment order deals only with the issue of lost wages, it comes in the same month the Aquilinis were fined $53,000 for using an unsafe vehicle to transport workers on the same farm.The Aquilinis were previously fined $125,402 in 2011 after WorkSafeBC inspections found similar safety violations at their Pitt Meadows berry operation.The labour federation used the decision to call for greater protections for temporary foreign workers, who run the risk of being sent home or blacklisted for speaking out about unfair conditions. The federation also called for stronger enforcement of employer compliance.“This is a small but important victory,” said Cronk, “and it serves as a message to employers that they can no longer get away with exploiting temporary foreign workers in the province of British Columbia.”email@example.comFollow @harrisonmooneyWith files from Tiffany Crawford
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