Jennilyn Morris, an Edmonton woman, has been charged with human trafficking over allegations she illegally employed at least 212 foreign nationals between 2006 and 2010.
The Canada Border Services Agency said this is the first time it has laid criminal human trafficking charges in Alberta.
Morris faces five charges, including human trafficking, counselling and misrepresentation, and three counts of hiring a foreign national without authorization.
The charges follow a five-year investigation by the agency, which believes as many as 700 people could have been affected.
“This has been one of the most significant criminal prosecution files the CBSA has undertaken in Alberta,” said agency spokeswoman Lisa White.
“There were two search warrants that were executed, there were thousands of pieces of evidence and hundreds of people to interview. In one search warrant alone, the CBSA investigators seized over 12,000 documents.”
According to the agency, the workers involved were allegedly in the country as visitors, had overstayed their visas or could only work legally for other employers.
Allegedly the workers were employed illegally in three Edmonton hotels, worked as house cleaners and stuffed flyers into newspapers.
Morris is accused of fraudulently bringing one worker into Canada using threats and coercion and then giving the person lower pay, more hours and different work than what was promised.
Changing ideas of trafficking
Andrea Burkhart, with the Action Coalition on Human Trafficking, said attention has traditionally been focused on sex trafficking, while labour trafficking has quietly become a huge problem.
“Labour trafficking, I would suggest, is much harder to spot than sex trafficking — and as well takes a change in perception,” she said.
"I think the next steps are for more people to be aware of what their rights are in Canada. For migrant labourers, but also people who may be here illegally to know that they still have rights in Canada, that our government and law enforcement bodies will protect them. And that legislation — like human trafficking legislation — can protect them."
White said the case should serve as a warning to other employers.
“Employers and employees are reminded that if they contravene the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act it could lead to criminal prosecutions in court, and the charges this person is facing come with some pretty significant penalties if convicted.”
The maximum penalty for human trafficking is life in prison and a $1-million fine.
Morris is scheduled to appear in Edmonton provincial court on July 2.