A temporary foreign worker who sold massage devices and other products in mall kiosks has reported he and his colleagues worked hundreds of hours for no pay, while forced to live under constant threat of deportation.
“It’s all organized from the start,” said Anton Soloviov, 25, who worked for 0860005 B.C. Ltd, a company run by B.C. resident Dor Mordechai and his wife, Anna Lepski.
The couple operated kiosks in malls in B.C.’s Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, including in Nanaimo's Woodgrove Centre, where Soloviov worked.
“They import you as a worker. Then they put you to 12-hours-a-day work … and they don’t pay you. So basically, that’s human trafficking,” he said.
Immigration officials have determined Soloviov fits in the category of a "victim of trafficking in persons," while his former supervisor Azi Qizel is under RCMP investigation for uttering threats.
"We lived on really the bare minimum,” said Soloviov. “Two bucks a kilogram of perogies or pasta or rice or whatever, until we actually ran out of money.”
Still in business
Go Public found some of the company’s mall kiosks still open for business, though. At least one is currently staffed by a foreign worker who told us she is from Spain.
Several government agencies have known about the B.C. company’s practices for months. Other mall kiosks, staffed by Israelis, were raided by the Canada Border Services Agency in 2011 in Ottawa and Halifax.
Despite that, Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s department didn’t revoke the B.C. company’s foreign worker permits when the latest allegations surfaced and the company continued advertising for workers.
“If they won't take it seriously, nobody will take it seriously,” said Soloviov, who is upset the company wasn't penalized.
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“I don’t want it to continue. I need to look over my shoulder…because I had death threats against me.”
Soloviov came from Israel in September to work in the kiosks after he said a recruitment agency at home promised him he could make a lot of money selling Pinook massage devices and Extreme Energy bracelets.
He hoped it was his ticket to become a Canadian.
“I wanted to become a citizen…not just a temporary foreign worker,” said Soloviov.
“The sales pitch was originally, ‘Come here, make $5,000 each month … even if you are not a good salesman, Canadians are really easy people to sell to.'”
Told to lie from start
He said he had a choice of working in Vancouver, Ottawa or Toronto, as part of an international sales operation. After he was interviewed by phone by the B.C. employer, he said he was told to pay the $1,900 airfare to get to Vancouver, and he said the employer told him to lie to border officials upon arrival and should pretend to be a tourist.
Federal rules require employers to cover airfare for temporary foreign workers they bring in.
“I basically sold everything, little that I had, and came in high hopes and dreams in a new country,” said Soloviov, who said his dream faded fast once he arrived.
Soloviov said Qizel immediately took him to a sparsely furnished, rented house in Nanaimo, where he and four other workers were told they had to live, under the supervisor's watch.
He said they were told they could work illegally, or pay $500 more for a work visa.
“He basically told me if you want to work legally, pay me 500 bucks right now and I will go make the paperwork for you,” said Soloviov, who chose the legal route.
The written Labour Market Opinion (LMO) issued to the company — which allowed it to hire foreign workers — said they must be paid $13 an hour and $21 an hour for any overtime.
“It’s completely fake, right. [The employer] just makes the contract look good in order to get the LMO,” said Soloviov.
To qualify for that permit, rules require the employer must try to find Canadians for the job first. Soloviov said that of the 50 or so mall kiosk salespeople working for Mordechai and his wife, not one was Canadian.
“I mean come on…$13 an hour and $21 overtime, working as a retail salesperson in a mall…I don’t think you’ll have trouble finding [local] workers for that position,” said Soloviov. “But, if you are not paying them, that’s a bit of a problem.”
Payroll records show he and others weren’t paid any hourly wages.
“After we actually agreed to everything, [Qizel] just said ‘Look guys you are working on commission. You don’t like it, you can get deported, I am cancelling your permit,'" said Soloviov.
He said they were told they would get 25 per cent from each sale. The shock came on paydays, he said, when they received next to nothing. The employer deducted $225 every two weeks for rent plus other “fines," from the little pay they were supposed to get.
“If you look at it, it’s modern slavery. Because some people were not actually paid at all,” said Soloviov. “I got paid 50 bucks or 100 bucks in the three months I worked and that’s bad exploitation. But some people were actually slaves and ended up owing him money.”
Soloviov said the fines were deducted arbitrarily for small infractions.
Fined for talking, using phones
“If you were caught just checking your time on your phone, you were fined $100,” said Soloviov.
“[Qizel] said, ‘I don’t want you speaking to each other, because you are not making any sales. If I catch you talking, $50 off your paycheque.'”
In one pay period, records show Soloviov and another worker were docked more for fines than what they earned, leaving them both almost $300 in debt to their employer after working several 12-hour days.
Soloviov said Qizel also berated them for not selling enough and constantly threatened them with deportation.
“His main threat…was ‘I am just going to cancel your work permit that you paid for and I will call Immigration and they will deport you within two weeks’.”
Go Public asked Woodgrove Centre Mall, where Soloviov worked, for a response to this situation.
General manager Mark Fenwick called back and said, "From our perspective, there is no story here." He indicated the mall considers it to be a matter for the employees to sort out with their employer.
In December, Soloviov became fed up and looked into his rights in Canada. He eventually told his supervisor he was going to file a claim with B.C.’s employment standards branch for unpaid wages.
He said Qizel flew into a rage and trashed the rental home. Soloviov alleges he also called him on his cellphone and threatened to bring someone to Nanaimo to kill him.
'Terrified' by threats
“There were direct death threats and physical harm threats. He said, 'If you open your mouth about any of this, I am going to kill you,'” said Soloviov.
“The female workers were really terrified and were hiding in their quarters in the house and that was pretty bad. And he was just rampaging around the house, throwing chairs, breaking stuff. It wasn’t pretty.”
Soloviov fled immediately to Nanaimo RCMP. While he was at the detachment, he said he got another call from an unidentified Hebrew-speaking man who said he was coming to the island by ferry to put a bullet in his head.
“In Israel, if somebody wants to get you, they will probably get you. You come with that mentality to this country…so it was pretty bad.”
The call was recorded by police, Soloviov said, and officers then went to the mall to try to find Qizel, but he’d disappeared.
RCMP confirmed to Go Public that there is still an active, ongoing investigation into uttering threats.
Immigration authorities have since issued exclusion orders to nine other Israelis working at the B.C. mall kiosks, requiring them to leave the country for working illegally or violating the terms of their visa by working at the wrong mall location.
"The CBSA is aware that some foreign nationals have been circumventing the legal avenues to work in Canada in a number of industries," said a spokesperson from the Canada Border Services Agency.
"Those removed in recent years as part of the mall kiosks, have sold a number of different products including beauty products, radio controlled toys and electronic cigarettes to name a few items."
Victims punished: lawyer
Toronto-based immigration lawyer Vanessa Routley has been trying to expose companies that exploit temporary foreign workers. She pointed out it’s almost always the workers who are punished — not the employers — which drives workers further underground.
“It's time for Canadians to really ask themselves, are we happy to have a servant class of people who can't stay permanently, people who toil for a pittance for years on end and then are asked to leave sometimes with no warning?” asked Routley.
She suggested the government should give foreign workers who are already here a path to citizenship and focus on going after bad employers.
“If this truly was human trafficking, if these people are basically indentured servants who are earning nothing, someone needs to be charged criminally.”
In question period Monday, as a result of Go Public's inquiries, Employment Minister Jason Kenney responded to questions from the Opposition about why the government hasn't acted on complaints it's known about for months.
"It does point to the need for better information-sharing between law enforcement agencies so that when one investigation is opened in the police force, for example, that administrative agencies are made informed. But Mr. Speaker we take such allegations very seriously and criminal sanctions are potential in this case," said Kenney.
Two other workers joined Soloviov in filing a complaint with the B.C. authorities, but they’ve have since gone back to their home countries. He stayed in a homeless shelter in Nanaimo for weeks and went on social assistance.
Because of the serious allegations about his employer, the immigration department then gave him a new open work permit for six months, so he’s found a new, temporary job.
He said he’s speaking out to warn his countrymen to beware.
“I'm looking to be a citizen — a normal citizen — and not a system exploiter of some sorts. I do have lots of skills,” said Soloviov. “And I don't want more young people to come here and get hurt.”
Go Public asked Dor Mordechai, director of the B.C. company that employed Soloviov, for a response to this story. His lawyer wrote back that, because of the employment standards complaint, he had no comment.
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