Advocates for B.C. farm workers say the federal government has spent millions of dollars trying to force the low-income labourers to return employment insurance benefits paid out years ago.
"I'm embarrassed that this is how our government is treating these people," said Sarah Khan, a lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCIAC), which represents 300 of the fruit and vegetable pickers.
"I can think of a lot better things to do with taxpayers' money than this."
The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has gone after hundreds of B.C. farm labourers, many of whom are elderly and illiterate, claiming they exaggerated the hours they worked each summer so they could collect employment insurance. Court records show that at one point the CRA had spent $6 million pursuing one group of 120 workers.
Khan predicts Ottawa will recoup little or none of the millions spent, even if it wins every case.
"A lot of them are quite elderly and do not have the income to pay," said Khan.
"Hundreds of workers have been disentitled from EI, dragged through years and years of investigations and appeals and, ultimately, hung out to dry."
Workers say hours not exaggerated
Tarsem Singh Gill, one of those elderly workers, can speak very little English. In 2001, Gill was a driver and berry picker working for B.C. Labour Contracting Inc. He claimed a total income that year of $16,457.80, for 1,978 hours of work. The CRA reduced his insurable hours by one-quarter, concluding he had been overpaid almost $8,000 in EI benefits.
"I not wrong. I not lie," Gill said. He said he worked six to seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, "193 days, full-time."
Another worker, Gurdip Kaur Sandhu, had her insurable hours cut from 960 to 173.5. A grandmother who has trouble walking, Sandhu she said she has no way to pay the government back.
"I have no money. I am worker," Sandhu said.
Employers notorious for falsifying records
Khan said it's the contractors who hire the workers who are known to lie about hours worked. They will often record fewer hours than what a berry picker put in, she said, to save on paying benefits.
"They create records that show workers work eight or nine hours a day five days a week, maybe six days a week, when they really worked much more," said Khan.
Sometimes, she said, employers will also pay less than the minimum allowed, then, in exchange, give the labourers an inflated record of employment, so they can claim employment insurance.
Government documents show Ottawa is aware that employers' records are often unreliable.
In the case of Gill's former employer the CRA writes, "Records as provided by B.C. Labour Contracting are not credible."
CRA records also show the company owed more than $200,000 in GST and payroll remittances, but, unlike the workers, the government is not pursuing the company or its owners to make them pay.
"As of January 2006," documents state, "this account was referred for write-off as uncollectible."
Gill said the owner of the company is still in business but operating under a new name.
"We think that the government should put more time and attention and money going after the contractors," said Khan.
No comment from Ottawa
A spokesperson for Minister of National Revenue Gordon O'Connor said no one in the department could comment on the cases, because they are still making their way through tax court.
The government is about to launch another court challenge, against another 120 workers. That trial is expected to take 100 days of court time, and cost taxpayers millions more.
During the last trial, Khan said, one elderly worker became so stressed over having to testify that he had a heart attack on his way to court.