More than a dozen migrant farm workers from Guatemala say they were cheated out of their work permits and treated like "slaves" after coming to Quebec earlier this year.
The workers were taken into custody when immigration officials raided a job placement agency in Victoriaville, Que., last month, and are now facing deportation.
"We thought this was a good place to work and earn a good salary," Juan Antonio Godoy Enriquez, one of the workers, said at a Montreal news conference Tuesday.
"But at each place we worked, we became slaves and were not paid what we were promised."
Enriquez said the workers were sometimes paid as little as $300 for working 85 hours a week.
"We were still getting paid better than back home, so we kept our mouths shut," he said.
Enriquez said they were working at a farm in Victoriaville when a placement agency, Les Progrès Inc., encouraged them to leave their jobs to fill in at other farms in central Quebec.
'They are the victims … while the man who did this to them is walking around free.' - Susan Ramirez, lawyer
He said the agency promised them work permits to make the move.
Instead, the agency took thousands of dollars off their pay, but never actually applied for the permits, he said.
The Canada Border Services Agency said its officers led the raid on October 26, as part of an investigation into unauthorized workers. Both the RCMP and the Sûreté du Québec confirmed they assisted in the operation.
Les Progrès owner Esvin Cordon, who is also originally from Guatemala, told Radio-Canada on the weekend that he has nothing to hide. He declined to comment further when contacted by CBC News on Tuesday.
None of the allegations made by the migrant workers have been proven in court. Cordon's lawyer, Lydie-Magalie Stiverne, said he was also arrested during the raid but has not been charged with a crime.
"He says the allegations are completely false," Stiverne said. "And he says he always wanted to do everything legally."
Stiverne says Cordon told her the migrant workers approached him for work.
He agreed to find them jobs, on the condition they applied for a change in their immigration status. The workers signed a contract with another agency to take care of that, she said.
"To see his reputation tarnished, it's very hard for him right now," Stiverne added.
14 Guatemalans say they were swindled for work permits they never got. 11 still in detention, all face deportation. pic.twitter.com/NLhjhGDERP— @EmilyBrass
At the news conference, the lawyer for the Guatemalan workers, Susan Ramirez, said all 15 of her clients were taken into custody by CBSA officials during the raid on Oct. 26. One of the migrants was deported this morning.
Four were released on $1,500 bail with promises from guarantors who are Canadian citizens, which Ramirez said makes them less of a flight risk.
The remaining ten are still being held at the immigration detention centre in Laval. One of the men in custody is scheduled for deportation on Tuesday.
The others will appear at an immigration hearing on Monday; all face deportation.
Ramirez is asking for a stay in the removal proceedings and for the workers to be granted open work permits. She argues her clients did not willfully break the law and should be given a second chance.
Ramirez said they didn't realize they'd lost their status, because Cordon had ensured them he had taken care of the paperwork.
She said their status became illegal once they switched workplaces.
They've also filed complaints with the province's workplace health and safety board, CNESST. The complaints are aimed at the placement agency and the farms where they worked.