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Enquête sent two undercover journalists to a Montreal chicken factory to investigate working conditions for new immigrants. ((Radio-Canada))

Some Montreal temp agencies that cater to immigrants are paying less than minimum wage for backbreaking work and don't pay benefits or apply the standard deductions required by law, according to a Radio-Canada investigation.

Investigative program Enquête hired two Hispanic journalists to impersonate recently arrived immigrants looking for work at meatpacking plants.

The two journalists – Colombian Martin Movilla and Chilean Jesus Javia Mendez – wore hidden cameras when they applied to temporary agencies that specialize in placing immigrants who don't speak English or French. Both men were assigned to Montreal chicken factories, where they worked alongside regular staff. 

'No one ever asked me for a single piece of ID. Not even my … [health] card. If I'd had a workplace accident, what would have happened then? Who would have been responsible for my care?'

—Martin Movilla, undercover journalist

Movilla and Mendez were expected to work long shifts, up to nine hours at a time, sometimes with only one 15-minute break. They were paid between $6.50 and $8.00 per hour. The minimum wage in Quebec is $9.50.

The footage Radio-Canada captured shows immigrant workers with little training labouring in difficult conditions for wages that are two to three dollars an hour lower than those of regular staff.

"It's like being psychologically whipped," said Mendez. "If you're not doing it right, ciao. It's demeaning. You get yelled at."

The men were not eligible for any sick leave, overtime pay or vacation time. They were paid cash and picked up their pay at cheque cashing stores. Their pay included no deductions for income tax or employment insurance.

Movilla said he was surprised at the system's informality. When he told staff at his placement agency that he had no identity papers and no legal right to work, they responded that it wasn't a problem.

''No one ever asked me for a single piece of ID,'' Movilla said. ''Not even my … [health] card. If I'd had a workplace accident, what would have happened then? Who would have been responsible for my care?''

Mendez said he has worked hard in his life but never as hard as he did while researching this story.

''This was really intense. It was like running a marathon," he said. "You get to work, and you don't stop until it's over. You have to run, run, run, and if the assembly line stops, if the chicken isn't there, if there's a problem somewhere, everyone goes crazy!''

Temp agencies that cater to immigrants make it easy for people new to the country to find work, but "unfortunately, once they are in the jobs, they find themselves in all sorts of ... problems," said Joey Calugay, a community organizer who supports immigrant workers in Montreal.

Calugay said he remembers the case of one immigrant worker who was knocked unconscious while on the factory floor after he was struck in the face by a piece of machinery.

"When he came to, he was told not to report this, that he should continue working," Calugay recounted. "He didn't know if his cheekbone was broken, but he continued to work, because he felt pressure to."

Agencies avoid taxes, rob province of revenue

Enquête  also investigated the people who run some of the temp agencies and found irregular accounting records. Some of the agencies have a history of unpaid taxes, and some owe former employees thousands of dollars in unpaid wages.

The potential revenue loss for Quebec is staggering. Pierre Bouchard, chief investigator at Revenue Quebec, the province's tax agency, estimated that the province loses "a minimum of $50 million a year in lost taxes from this sector of economic activity."

Some agencies actually shut down operations when business is lean, only to reopen under a different name, Enquête found.

"It's a very unstable business, [with] no fixed addresses, no last names," explained Messaoud Abda, a management professor at the University of Sherbrooke who specializes in financial crime. "All you get is a first name and a telephone number and a meeting point."

Authorities are now starting to think that some of the agencies might be involved in money-laundering given their cash-only payroll, Abda said.

"That's where it really starts to hurt society."

Enquête airs Thursday night at 8 p.m. on Radio-Canada.