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How a Haitian asylum seeker was swept up in a shadowy industry of temp agency work

Paulo crossed 12 countries to come to Canada to work. Then he was swept up into temp agency work and suffered a work accident that has left him unable to use his right hand.

Paulo crossed 12 countries to land in Quebec. Now he is trying to get workers compensation

Paulo is a Haitian asylum seeker in Montreal, who was recruited by a temp agency when he hadn't yet received his work permit and suffered from a serious injury to his hand in a work accident. Now, he's trying to get workers compensation. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

It may have been a warm September last fall, but Paulo knew enough about Canada to know the weather would soon turn cold. 

He woke up early one morning and took the Metro to Namur station, in the northwest of Montreal, to buy winter clothes for himself and his wife, says Paulo, a Haitian asylum seeker whose name has been changed.

As he exited the station, he was met by a group of people huddled on the sidewalk carrying lunch bags. They were about to get into several rickety vans headed for a meat-processing plant called Sherrington Meats. 

"Someone said, 'Let's go to work, let's go to work. I need five people. I need six people,' Paulo said in Creole, recounting the scene. 

He had applied for a work permit and hadn't received it yet, but the man rounding people up told Paulo he could work while he waited for it to arrive. 

Paulo felt uneasy, but the sight of other Haitians in the van reassured him. Besides, he was desperate to start working so he could pay back the money he borrowed to get to Canada and to help his family beset by poverty in his homeland, aching from natural disasters and political instability. He got in.

This is how Paulo was swept up in a shadowy industry of temp agency work that has stumped authorities and is being decried by labour advocates. 

Three weeks after he hopped into that van, he suffered a work accident with a meat cutter that sliced the skin off the top of his right hand.

Something as simple as boiling water to make rice has become nearly impossible for Paulo. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

He had to undergo an emergency skin graft. The healing process could take years.

Now he is filing a claim to Quebec's workplace health and safety board (CNESST) his lawyer hopes will provide compensation for the loss of his ability to work during treatment, as well as for some of his medical costs.

But the claim is complicated by the fact that the temp agency assigned him someone else's name and social insurance number. Paulo finally got his work permit about two weeks after he was hurt.

His lawyer, Richard-Alexandre Laniel, says he's heard of other cases of newcomers being told by recruiters they were entitled to work when, really, they were not. 

"They are profiting off the ignorance of the workers," said Laniel, an attorney focusing on social justice issues, who believes his client's situation is a symptom of a larger issue. 

"I think there is a problem here in Canada. I think there is a system in which we are using vulnerable people to do precarious jobs."

A fake identity

The van tore down Highway 15 at dawn as the group of workers sat in silence until, five minutes before their arrival, the driver pulled over. She handed everyone slips of paper with names and social insurance numbers that were not theirs and instructed them to fill in employment forms at the factory with them, Paulo says. 

For three weeks, Paulo was picked up at a Metro station by the temp agency before dawn to go to work at the meat-processing factory. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Paulo started off stacking boxes and quickly became known as a fast and efficient worker. He was paid $10 an hour, he said, $1.25 less than the minimum wage.

The day of the accident, Oct. 11, 2017, just before lunchtime, he was sent to the meat cutting machines. He was to operate a device that shaves fat from pieces of pork. 

"I was bothered. I said, 'I don't know the machine. It's the first time I see something like this,'" Paulo said. The supervisor showed him briefly how it worked and left, returning to check on him every once in a while, he said. 

But Paulo says he was struggling, and something seemed wrong with the machine. The man dismissed his concerns and urged him on, he said. 

Carefully, he carried on until moments later, Paulo says, his hand got caught in the hardware. 

The pain was harrowing, like an electric shock, he said, wincing at the memory. 

"Blood was coming out like someone was spilling water," Paulo said. "The whole time I was thinking, 'What am I going to tell my wife, what am I going to tell my wife?'"

Paulo and his wife met as teenagers in the small port city of Saint-Marc in Haiti. Together, they crossed the U.S. border in Lacolle, Que., last August, putting an end to a journey that took them through a dozen countries. 

Canada presented endless opportunities and, they hoped, a future home for their eight-year-old son. Paulo hasn't seen him since he left Haiti to work in Brazil six years ago. A relative has been caring for the son.

Factory owner remembers accident

Paulo was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital before being transferred to the Montreal General. He received a 12-hour surgery to graft the skin of his right thigh to his hand. 

The owner of Sherrington Meats, Luc Pilotte, says he remembers the accident at his factory well. It was only at that point, he says, that he learned that Paulo had been working without papers.

"I hope it's just one man because it's not in my interest to have people who don't have work permits working for me," he said.

The meat-processing plant Paulo worked at, Sherrington Meats, is a 45-minute drive south of Montreal. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

He insists — either way — that Paulo was properly trained. Workers on that machine typically receive at least 30 minutes of training, he said.

Pilotte relies on temp agencies hiring newcomers to fill many of the 130 spots in the factory because they are jobs most Quebecers don't want, he said.

It is up to the agency to collect workers' information and make sure it is in order, he said. 

Under Quebec's labour law, it's unclear who is responsible for a worker hired by a temp agency if an accident occurs. Advocates say that makes it easy for those people to fall through the cracks because it can be difficult to hold small agencies accountable. 

A new bill released last week by the province's labour minister aims to make companies and the temp agencies they contract equally responsible for work accidents. 

Quebec is the only province in Canada where companies are not required by law to declare all work accidents on their premises, according to a 2016 report by Montreal's public health office called "Invisible Workers."

Paulo underwent a 12-hour emergency skin graft. Doctors cut a piece of skin from his thigh to use on his hand. (Submitted/CBC News)

In response to a CBC News request, the CNESST said it "intervened" at the Sherrington plant in 2015 following a complaint by a worker. 

Then it was involved again again in 2017, following a work accident in December 2016. It could not reveal more details in time for publication.

A difficult work environment

A phone number for the agency Paulo worked for is linked to at least three companies run by a man named Hector Rodriguez. They operate under several names, but have one in common: YUL Embauche. 

Its website declares it is "a placement agency that puts the people first."

A former worker, who preferred to remain anonymous because he is afraid speaking out could affect future employment, said he "never felt so uncomfortable in a job before."

The man worked at Sherrington Meats through an agency operated by Rodriguez. He described a difficult work environment, where supervisors constantly pushed temp workers to toil harder. 

"It seemed like the only goal at the end of the day was just to get productivity higher," he said in an interview. He saw workers seemingly picked at random to do jobs that appeared to require more training than they were given, he said. 

"I saw plenty of opportunities for people to get hurt."

Paulo interacted with a man named Hector, who worked for the temp agency. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Pilotte said everything in his factory is up to code. He acknowledged there is a high turnover of employees at his factory, but said it was because of the cold temperatures inside.

Paulo was told the agency stopped accepting workers without permits right after his accident. CBC News used a hidden camera to film the agency meeting with workers one morning at Georges-Vanier Metro station, where Paulo said most rides heading to Sherrington leave from. 

We asked a man rounding workers up if they hired people without permits, but were told, "everyone here has papers, sorry."

Rodriguez sent an email to CBC News in response to a request to comment, acknowledging the accident took place. 

He denies all allegations of hiring workers illegally.

"Our company does not recruit or hire immigrants who do not have a work permit," Rodriguez wrote. 

Temp workers at higher risk of work accidents

CBC News and Radio-Canada found the person whose name and SIN Paulo was given. The man, who recently became a permanent resident, was visibly shaken when two reporters met with him. 

He said he'd worked for a temp agency at a lumber yard near the Lacolle border crossing over the summer. The phone number he had for the temp agency matched the one Paulo has. 

Most of the rides Paulo would take to the factory left from Georges-Vanier Metro station at 6 a.m. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

It is not unheard of for temp agency workers without valid work permits to be given someone else's identity, according to Manuel Salamanca, a member of the Montreal-based Temporary Agency Worker Association. 

Salamanca's postgraduate research at McGill University focuses on immigrant workers employed by temp agencies. 

"The conditions are terrible. I mean, really terrible," said Salamanca. Many, especially those without official documents, see the jobs offered by agencies as their only choice, he said. 

CNESST estimates the risk of temp workers having a work accident is high to extremely high. The public health report found temp workers from visible minority communities are twice as likely to be the victim of a work accident.

Memories are impossible to escape

Paulo's life, more than six months after arriving in Canada, revolves around his injury. He splits his time between his small studio apartment in Montreal's east end and multiple occupational therapy appointments every week. 

He goes for walks and to buy things at a nearby shopping centre, but memories of the accident and worries about his family back home have become impossible to escape. 

Still, Paulo is always grinning.

"Every time I see him, I mean, he's the one who's actually uplifting me about what's happening," says Frantz André, who has devoted himself to getting Paulo back on his feet.

Frantz André, who has been helping Haitian asylum seekers settle in Montreal, says he's developed a close friendship with Paulo. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

André helped establish an advocacy group for Haitians without status three years ago and has been taking asylum seekers under his wing since the summer. 

"I consider him to be my friend. He's a friend. He's not an asylum seeker in my heart, he's already a resident of Canada," André said. "This guy has spirit."

Once he's healed, Paulo says he looks forward to running marathons again — he's always had a yearning to take on new challenges — and taking French lessons. 

"To me, Canada is the No. 1 country in the world."

About the Author

Verity Stevenson

Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

With files from Jean-Philippe Robillard, Antoni Nerestant, Daniel Boily and Meeker Guerrier