Hundreds of temporary foreign workers have launched a class action lawsuit against Mac's Convenience Stores, claiming they paid more than $8,000 to get jobs in Canada that did not exist.
The notice of claim, filed with the B.C. Supreme Court, alleges that from December 2009 onwards the workers were recruited in Dubai to work at Mac's stores in B.C., Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
But, the claim says, when the workers arrived in Canada, they found the more than 425 jobs they had been contracted to perform — the only jobs they were allowed to perform under their TFW permits — were non-existent.
"It's outrageous, it's totally outrageous. It's exploitative and it shouldn't happen in a country like ours. It shouldn't happen," said one of the lawyers representing the group, Carmela Allevato.
"It's very sad; their stories are heart-wrenching and hopefully there'll be justice for them at some point."
Surrey firms also sued
The migrant workers are also suing three immigration firms — Overseas Immigration Services, Overseas Career and Consulting Services and Trident Immigration Services — all based in Surrey, B.C.
The firms allegedly charged the workers an illegal $8,000 recruitment fee and made them pay their own transportation to Canada.
"Everybody played a role in it," said Allevato. "Overseas was the agency that was used, and Mac's is the employer that didn't deliver."
Under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, migrant workers are issued a permit strictly linked to the employment contract offered by their new employer.
If the worker's job role, location, or employer changes, their work permit becomes invalid.
"As a result, the Plaintiffs and Class Members were left without any legal source of income in Canada," states the notice of claim. "They suffered mental and physical distress, humiliation and loss of self esteem."
No response from Mac's
Mac's Convenience Stores Ltd., which began as Mac's Milk in 1962, now has about 800 stores across Canada, employing approximately 8,000 people.
The CBC contacted Mac's, but at the time of writing, the firm had declined to comment. News of the lawsuit came the same day that two Mac's employees were killed in separate armed robberies in Edmonton.
Meanwhile, attempts to contact Overseas Immigration Services and Overseas Career and Consulting Services were unsuccessful, a receptionist telling the CBC that director Kuldeep Kumar Bansal was not available for an interview.
At the time of writing, calls to Trident Immigration Services have not been returned.
'Very tragic situation'
Allevato described the temporary foreign workers' situation as intolerable.
"They were at the mercy of the agent," she said. "They couldn't work anywhere else and they were trapped in that."
In one instance, she said, one of the workers was sent to Alberta to work, but was brought to a homeless shelter by border agents because that violated the conditions of his work permit and he had nowhere to go.
"Some of them are still here... They've been homeless, because they can't work....Some of them have gone back to Dubai, some have gone back to the Philippines, others are in Alberta.
"It's a very tragic situation. Very, very tragic."
Allevato says the workers just want to be treated fairly.
"They're entitled to compensation for what they've gone through, as well as for repayment of the money that they put out, which isn't allowed under our law ... We're looking for some justice for these folks."
TFW an 'abusive' program
Allevato said she also believes there are thousands of other workers in the same circumstances, due to the way the Temporary Foreign Worker program is structured.
She hopes the case shines a light on the problem.
"What the stories of these folks illustrate is how abusive the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is," she said.
Really, it's time for the government to remove it," she said.
"If people are good enough to come here to work, they're good enough to live here — and have the full protection of all the laws we have here in Canada."
In an email statement, Employment and Social Development Canada spokeswoman Julia Sullivan said the department is actively looking into this situation, but cannot comment on specific cases.
"Temporary foreign workers have all the rights and protections as Canadians under relevant federal/provincial/territorial employment standards and labour laws, and can pursue legal remedies with the employer."