Erik Flores came to Canada full of optimism that his new job at a Tim Hortons franchise near Regina would open doors to a "beautiful life."
Instead, the 21-year-old from Mexico says he found himself walking to work in the snow and living in a basement with five other Mexican men.
The job at Tim Hortons didn't work out, and today he is waiting for a work permit under Saskatchewan's provincial nominee program. The whole experience, he says, left him feeling used and exploited.
As more and more Canadian employers, ranging from fast-food outlets to skilled trades, turn to temporary foreign workers like Flores, questions are being raised over who is making sure the immigrants are treated fairly while they're in the country.
"Many of these migrant workers who are coming in for work, who are often desperate for work, are put in incredibly vulnerable situations where exploitation, abuse, dangerous, unsafe working conditions are actually too often the norm for their situation," says Karl Flecker, national director of anti-racism and human rights for the Canadian Labour Congress.
"I think that most Canadians would be really disturbed to find out the kinds of working conditions people from so many countries are finding themselves in despite promises that they had heard from labour brokers and recruiters."
Flores' experience, which has caught the attention of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, isn't the only recent one focusing on Tim Hortons, the ubiquitous Canadian brand that serves doughnuts and double-doubles from coast to coast.
The chain's use of temporary foreign workers hit the headlines earlier this year when four Mexican workers launched a human rights complaint against the former owner of two restaurants in Dawson Creek, B.C., alleging their boss exploited and discriminated against them.
Alexandra Cygal, manager of public affairs for Tim Hortons Inc., says the company was only made aware of the allegations through the media.
"We just received the formal complaint today and we will fully co-operate with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal as they review these allegations against our former owner," she wrote in an email to CBC News on Dec. 6.
Cygal did not respond to questions seeking the company's response to the specific allegations, but has said the company doesn't condone any of the behaviours alleged in the Dawson Creek complaint.
Eugene Kung, a lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre who is representing the four workers, says that since filing the complaint, several temporary foreign workers and community members from B.C. to P.E.I. have contacted him to express similar concerns, mostly about Tim Hortons.
Not as expected
In Flores' case, he thought he knew how things were going to turn out.
"The lawyers and everything — they just told me the [business] owner was going to take care of everything … until we get the first cheque."
But, says Flores, it didn't work out that way.
He found out there were no arrangements for getting back and forth from work and he ended up walking in the snow or paying out of pocket for a taxi. His accommodation was in the home of a friend of the Tim Hortons franchise owner in White City, Sask. Flores says the owner took him to his friend's house, where he eventually found himself sharing the basement with five other foreign workers.
Flores and the other temporary foreign workers, all from Mexico, shared three bedrooms and had no food preparation facilities beyond a microwave and bar fridge. They couldn't shower between midnight and six a.m., he says. Rent charges varied between $500 and $600 per month.
The living arrangements left him feeling "really bad" and "upset about the treatment."
His working environment didn't work out as he hoped, either. There was confusion over money, including holiday pay. A day after someone told his boss he ate a Timbit in the Tim Hortons kitchen, Flores says the boss told him "your contract is done."
Cygal says the Saskatchewan government's Labour Standards Division reviewed the matter.
"There was a discrepancy in payroll between what [the franchise owner] thought he owed the employees on their final paycheque and what the pay should have been due to holidays. [The franchise owner] resolved that issue immediately," Cygal wrote in an email to CBC News.
"The rest of the allegations were against the employees’ landlord and not [the franchise owner]."
Attempts to reach the franchise owner through his store were unsuccessful. CBC News was told by staff in the restaurant that the owner was aware of the inquiries, and that he directed any further questions to Cygal.
Greg Tuer, executive director of the Labour Standards Division for the government of Saskatchewan, says it received complaints regarding a Tim Hortons franchise regarding illegal deductions.
"We had an officer go out, speak to the franchisee. We did find that there were inappropriate deductions — though that has been dealt with. The employer readily made whole, and so from a labour standards perspective the issue is closed."
Proud Canadian brand
Tim Hortons "is a company that a lot of Canadians identify with and it is very proudly a Canadian brand," says Howard Ramos, an associate professor of sociology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
"But it's also a company that is a pioneer in hiring temporary foreign workers and so for this reason I think it's important to highlight Tim Hortons as an exemplar of how the temporary foreign worker program has changed and expanded."
'I think it's important to highlight Tim Hortons as an exemplar of how the temporary foreign worker program has changed and expanded.' —Howard Ramos, Dalhousie University
Cygal says Hortons doesn't have numbers of temporary foreign workers employed at its restaurants.
But in an email to CBC News, she said that many of the company's restaurants wouldn't be able to operate full time or remain open without the temporary foreign worker program.
Franchisees prefer to hire locally rather "than to go to the expense and administrative needs of hiring temporary foreign workers," but turn to the program after they have "exhausted all other avenues" to fill vacancies, Cygal wrote.
Cygal said Tim Hortons and its restaurant owners "have had a very strong employment record since we started the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
"We have a rigorous screening process for employment agencies and partners abroad and our restaurant owners employ such rigor in their hiring and employment practices.
"We continue to feel good about the process we have in place so that together with our owners, Tim Hortons can continue offering a strong working environment for temporary foreign workers and all of our teams."
'We have a rigorous screening process for employment agencies and partners abroad and our restaurant owners employ such rigor in their hiring and employment practices.'—Alexandra Cygal, Tim Hortons
In 2008, a representative of Tim Hortons' licensing company, TDL Group Inc., told the federal citizenship and immigration committee that the company had more than 600 temporary foreign workers at stores across Canada, with another 400 arriving later in the year.
"So the number is going to continually increase," Chris Thomas told the committee.
Cygal told CBC News that Tim Hortons could not update these numbers.
As Tim Hortons is showing, Canada's temporary foreign worker program has become much more than a way to bring in seasonal agricultural help to pick peaches or cherries.
Across the country, more and more temporary foreign workers are employed in occupations ranging from fast food to skilled trades. Figures from CIC show that the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada grew from 101,098 in 2002 to 300,211 in 2011.
As the program is defined, it is intended for employers to fill short-term labour or skill shortages after they have shown they are unable to find Canadians or permanent residents to do the jobs.
"While labour force needs vary by region and sector, some regions of the country are facing acute labour shortages in certain sectors, and overall demand in the TFWP continues to grow," Citizenship and Immigration Canada said in an email to CBC News.
This year's federal budget included plans to "to better align the temporary foreign worker program with labour market demands, and to ensure that businesses look to the domestic labour force before hiring temporary foreign workers, while also improving efficiency and responsiveness to labour market demands," the department said.
Economic boost or drag?
Still, while the federal government and many businesses see the program as a vital way to address labour shortages, others suggest it leaves workers open to exploitation and ultimately creates a drag on the Canadian economy.
"This is a public policy that … basically floods the bottom end of the wage pool. And that's bad for the labour market as a whole," says Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
"The only people who are willing to do this work at those wage rates are people who are willing to live three, four and five people within an apartment," she says, adding Canada shouldn't "import a third world quality of life."
'This is a public policy that … basically floods the bottom end of the wage pool. And that's bad for the labour market as a whole.'—Armine Yalnizyan, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
Dalhousie's Ramos says the program has a number of major flaws, the most significant being that "temporary foreign workers don't have the same rights as permanent residents or Canadians."
The program creates an "underclass" of people, he says, because it allows temporary foreign workers to be paid less than Canadians doing the same job.
"This means that that they're not going to be able to have the same earning power and at the same time are often working in marginal jobs as is demonstrated through a number of people who are hired in the service sector."
'Just like you and I'
Michael Niren, a Toronto immigration lawyer, says that the B.C. Tim Hortons story, which involves allegations that have not been proven, was "pretty shocking" because under new federal compliance guidelines, once foreign workers are admitted to Canada, "they're supposed to be treated just like you and I."
"I'm not a fan so much of what the government has done with respect to immigration regulations in the last year or two, but when it comes to the temporary foreign worker program, I do commend them in their efforts in making sure that Canadian employers do comply with employment standards and I think they've done a really good job," says Niren.
But he sees a "chronic problem" around "middlemen," the local immigration consultants or recruiters who are hired as agents in foreign countries to try to bring workers to Canada.
"The middleman is where it's really, really difficult to police."
Citizenship and Immigration Canada said in an email response to CBC News that it is "unacceptable" for Canadian employers to exploit or mistreat workers, regardless of their nationality or occupation, and that the federal government takes the issues of exploitation and mistreatment within the program "very seriously."
Provinces and territories are primarily responsible for enforcing labour standards, but this year's federal budget bill also included legislative provisions for inspections of employers to verify compliance with requirements of the temporary foreign workers program.
In April 2011, several new regulations also came into place, including one allowing the federal government to designate employers as ineligible to take part in the temporary foreign worker program.
So far, though, no ineligible employers are listed on the CIC website.