British Columbia

Guatemalan workers allege poor conditions at Aquilini berry farm

A group of female farm workers from Guatemala is alleging poor living and working conditions at a berry farm operated by the billionaire Aquilini family in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

Billionaire owners say claims 'extreme, unfounded, and false'

Temporary foreign workers from Guatemala speak to the media about working conditions while at Golden Eagle Berry Farms in Pitt Meadows during a news conference on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A group of female farmworkers from Guatemala is alleging poor living and working conditions at a B.C. berry farm owned by the billionaire Aquilini family.

Seven women say there were a variety of problems last summer at the Golden Eagle Berry Farm in Pitt Meadows, including poor access to water on hot summer days, and also too much time spent in a cold storage room without warm clothing.

Some women also describe crowded and unsanitary living quarters  — including an instance of 76 women living in one house with not enough working appliances or showers.

'Claim that water was withheld is particularly egregious'

The Aquilini family moved quickly to refute the claims.

Jim Chu, senior vice-president of the Aquilini Group, which runs Golden Eagle, issued a statement late Tuesday, saying this is the first the group has heard of many of the allegations, stating it intends to investigate them fully.

"Having said that," wrote Chu, "many of the allegations are extreme, unfounded and false; the claim that water was withheld is particularly egregious."

Golden Eagle Berry Farm in Pitt Meadows, B.C. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Chu also wrote that the workers' housing is inspected annually. He noted the housing was inspected in advance of the women coming to the farm in January 2018, and was found to be "in compliance with all government requirements."

Couldn't feel hands and feet

Mirsa Martinez, 28, spoke Tuesday morning through an interpreter at a news conference in Vancouver, which was sponsored by advocacy group, Dignante Migrante Society.

Marinez said at one point last summer she had to unpack fruit in a cold storage room at Golden Eagle for six hours.

Deysi Martinez, 30, says she worked 15 hours in a cold room at Golden Eagle Berry Farm, owned by the Aquilini family. It was the worst part of the job, she said. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

She said she was so cold she couldn't feel her hands and feet.

Her sister, Deysi Martinez, 30, also recounted stress from the cold. She said the worst part of her time at the farm was working 15 hours in the freezer area without proper equipment to protect her from the cold.

Cold stress assessment ordered

Documents obtained by CBC through a freedom of information request earlier this year show that Worksafe BC investigated reports of cold stress at the farm in September 2018.

The agency ordered Golden Eagle to conduct a cold stress assessment, which is required to determine the potential for hazardous exposure ahead of freezer work. The farm complied with the order in November.

Problems with medical help alleged

Osmery Arteaga, 31, said there was little attention paid to first aid or medical injuries, including when she hurt her hand. 

In Worksafe's September inspection of the berry operations, Golden Eagle was found not to have completed an investigation report after a worker received medical treatment due to injury. 

A worker in the field at the Aquilini's Golden Eagle Berry Farm in Pitt Meadows, B.C. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Golden Eagle was also found to have failed to complete a musculoskeletal injury assessment for its workers. 

In both instances the farm subsequently complied with Worksafe's requirements.

The Aquilini family owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team. The family's Golden Eagle Farm Group's blueberry and cranberry operations sit on approximately 2,000 hectares in Pitt Meadows. 

Aquilinis ordered to pay farm workers $133,000

The women were a part of a larger group of 174 foreign workers from Golden Eagle Berry farm who were awarded a total of $133,632.56 in back wages earlier this month from the Aquilinis in an employment standards award. The amounts owed ranged from $10.02 to $1,943.27 per worker. 

The adjudicator ruled that the employees were entitled by their contract to 40 hours of work per week for their time at the farm.

A few days later, on May 21, the Aquilini Group wrote a letter to its employees, penned by Chu. 

Chu, who is a former Vancouver police chief, emphasized all workers had been paid for their hours at the agreed rate of $11.35 per hour.

The issue, he wrote, was "a disagreement in the Guatemalan contract interpretation ... and whether 40 hours was a guaranteed minimum per week." 

Aquilinis 'continue to co-operate'

Chu stated in the letter that after blueberry season ended in September, a group of 15 Guatemalan workers stayed in Canada and lodged complaints with regulators, claiming mistreatment.

"These complaints were never raised when they worked with us," he wrote. "We cooperated and continue to cooperate with the investigations."

In the statement issued today, Chu wrote that Golden Eagle had received "an unsolicited letter of appreciation and support signed by many seasonal agricultural workers" who have worked at Golden Eagle. He attached a copy of the letter.

The letter is signed by two representatives, who state the 74 named people on the list could not sign "by relation to the distance."

Aquilini response to female famworkers' claims

 

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