Even though employment agencies in Alberta are forbidden to charge foreign workers to find them a job, a loophole allows recruiters to bill the workers thousands of dollars.

The Fair Trading Act prohibits an employment agency from collecting money “directly or indirectly” from foreign workers, but permits unlimited charges for services “that are not employment agency business services.”

Those other services can include job-skills training and resume-writing, but also immigration consulting.

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Go Public found at least dozen Alberta businesses operating as one-stop shops that act as both recruiter, which cannot charge workers, and immigration consultants, which can.

Critics say the practice creates a grey area in which foreign workers may believe they are paying for a job.

The rules are inconsistent across western provinces. British Columbia is similar to Alberta, while Manitoba completely bans recruiters from billing workers. In Saskatchewan recruiters can charge for immigration consulting with the worker’s consent, but makes employers pay for any training and resume preparation.

Charging job seekers for anything violates the code of ethics of ACSESS, the Association of Canadian Search, Employment & Staffing Services.

“Our practice as an employment agency is not to be involved in those other activities,” said Randy Upright, ACSESS’s national director and Alberta CEO for the employment agency Manpower.

“If these two fees are being combined into a one-stop shop it certainly opens the door for a very grey interpretation of what that individual’s being charged for,” Upright said.

It also violates the principles of the Geneva-based International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS) — part of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization of which Canada is a founding member.

Membership in ACSESS and IRIS is voluntary.

‘It’s not the way to treat a foreigner’

Eduardo Paz used Global Hire, an Edmonton-based employment agency, to arrange a job interview with A1 Towing in Fort McMurray.

Eduardo Paz

Eduardo Paz signed a $2,500 retainer agreement with his recruitment agency. (CBC)

Paz says after a Skype interview with the towing company and a job offer, Global Hire sent him a “retainer agreement” for immigration assistance.

The fee was $2,500, of which he was required to make a 25 per cent deposit.

The agreement included a year of consultation on immigration-related questions, along with helping him obtain a health card, social insurance number, cell phone service, bank account, housing and his professional driver’s licence.

Paz says he believed he was paying for employment and immigration services, and says this was the only contract he signed with Global Hire.

He said he was never told he didn’t have to pay.

Global Hire president Rishi Mittal said the company never charges for jobs and all its clients are told immigration services are optional.

Paz says he wired $625 to Global Hire.

Shortly after, the recruiter sent him a two-year contract with the towing company along with its Labour Market Opinion from Citizenship and Immigration Canada allowing him to get a work visa.

Less than two months after arriving in Canada, Paz had been fired and was riding the Greyhound to Edmonton with less than $20 in his wallet.

He says A1 never paid him the hourly wage specified in his employment contract and Global Hire didn’t provide the majority of services in its contract either.

“It’s not a way to treat a foreigner who is alone in this country,” Paz said.

Airport ride all he got for $625, worker says

The former Portuguese police officer and veteran of Bosnian and Afghan peacekeeping operations said his warrant officer’s salary of $1,800 a month wasn’t enough to support a family of four in Portugal.

Paz said when he arrived in Edmonton, a Global Hire employee picked him up at the airport and took him to an apartment where he stayed one night with two other foreign workers.

“I had no room. I had to sleep on the floor,” he said.

Paz said the pick-up at the airport was the only thing Global Hire did for him.

“Even if he picked me up in a Ferrari, ($625) would be expensive,” he said.

When he arrived in Fort McMurray, he said A1 Towing wouldn’t let him drive, saying its insurance required he have an Alberta Class 1 licence.

Paz had a Portuguese truck-driver’s licence and an international driver’s licence with Class 1 equivalent endorsements.

A1 Towing put him to work as a driver’s helper at $20 an hour — $7.47 less than stipulated in his contract.

“[The manager said] this is Canada [and] I should follow these rules, otherwise I would be put on a plane and sent home,” Paz said.

Paz says after a month his hourly pay was dropped to $12. Soon after he was fired.

An A1 Towing spokeswoman said Paz agreed to the lower pay because he had misled them about his qualifications and was an uncooperative employee.

Paz says he agreed to the lower pay but denies he was unqualified or uncooperative and says he is still owed the return airfare stipulated in his employment contract.

Agency offers partial refund

Paz said after he was fired, he went to Global Hire’s office every day for a week seeking help finding another job. He said he was turned away several times and finally told, “we have nothing for you.”

In an interview Global Hire president Rishi Mittal conceded the company had not fulfilled all the terms of the contract but said it had spent “a couple of hundred dollars” to pick Paz up at the airport.

Rishi Mittal

Global Hire president Rishi Mittal says clients all know employment services are free, and extras are optional. (CBC)

The company has offered to refund Paz $350 of the $625 Paz paid, which he refused to accept..

Mittal said he thought Global Hire had paid for Paz to stay in a hotel for his first few nights in Canada and wasn’t aware he had to sleep on the floor

“That would be really wrong; that’s not something we condone,” Mittal said.

Mittal said his staff go “above and beyond” for clients and had been in contact with Paz “repeatedly” to offer assistance.

He said Paz had already been selected by A1 before he agreed to buy Global Hire’s immigration services.

After an initial telephone interview Mittal referred Go Public to his Edmonton lawyer.

Go Public has asked for, but been unable to obtain further statements and documents from Global Hire, including any separate recruitment contract it had with Paz, how it informed Paz the immigration services were optional and the efforts Global Hire made to find him another employer.

Re-write law, labour leader says

The Fair Trading Act allows companies to skirt the intent of the law banning charging workers, said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

“This legislation contains loopholes you could drive a truck through,” he said.

“It’s a fig leaf, little more than rhetorical protection for the government, to give the impression they’re doing something when in reality they’re not,” he said.

McGowan says the government should re-write the law to remove its exceptions.

Paz returned to Portugal to spend time with his family, but is now back in Canada looking for a company with permission to hire a foreign worker.

He said his ultimate goal is to bring his family here.

“I thought, and I still do, that Canada is one of the greatest countries to live in. With social fairness and a strong economy. At least that was what I was thinking.”

Stephen Khan, Minister for Service Alberta, said he doesn’t believe there’s a loophole in the law and that his department will investigate complaints from anyone who feels they’ve been victimized.

“We’re doing our best to create messaging and create a public awareness campaign so that people know what their rights are when it comes to these issues,” Khan said.