'I was so afraid': Foreign worker says former employer tried to extort her for sex

A foreign worker from Edmonton has gone into hiding, out of fear of retaliation from her former employer and immigration sponsor who is accused of sexually assaulting her.
A foreign worker says her former employer attempted to extort sex from her by holding her immigration application against her. (Rod Maldaner/CBC)

A foreign worker from Edmonton has gone into hiding, out of fear of retaliation from her former employer and immigration sponsor who is accused of sexually assaulting her.

"I didn't do anything wrong, but I'm living the life of a criminal," she said. "I had to leave everything just because of these people."

The 22-year-old woman told CBC that her former employer attempted to extort sex from her, by threatening to cancel her immigration application, which he sponsored. 

She wanted her story to be known, because she fears that other women may be in the same situation.

"These people, they think they can do anything," she said.

The man was charged with sexual assault by the Edmonton Police Service in December. 

As the woman's identity is protected by a publication ban, CBC is calling her Ashna and not naming the accused.

Ashna, originally from India, moved to Edmonton in December 2017 to work in the restaurant industry, she said. 

The restaurant owner offered her a job and agreed to sponsor Ashna under the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP), a pathway to permanent residency contingent on employment. 

The accused declined an interview with CBC.

He has yet to enter a plea to the sexual assault charge before a provincial court judge. 

'I was so afraid'

Ashna was employed by the man until July 2018, when the restaurant was sold to a new owner.

She continued to work at the restaurant for the new owner, she said, but her AINP application remained tied to her original employer.

"I have no choice," Ashna said. "I have to trust them until my file gets approved."

Ashna was working at the restaurant on Sept. 21, 2018, when she received a message from a coworker, who was also a friend, to meet her at a downtown apartment, she said.

When Ashna arrived that evening, her friend was with the accused and three other men. 

Ashna said she felt uneasy and wanted to leave, but the men pressured her to stay and drink with them.

"They all started approaching me," she said. "They started hugging me."

She said she went to a bedroom with her friend to talk in private, but the men followed.

I cried a lot, I was out of my mind. These people wanted to do sex with me just because of my permanent residency.- Ashna

It was then that the accused pushed her onto the bed and sexually assaulted her, she said. 

She fought the man off and tried to leave the apartment, she said.

"Everyone wanted to keep me there, to do whatever they wanted to me."

The man and one of his friends followed her into the hallway of the building, screaming obscenities at her, she claims.

He also threatened to cancel her AINP application if she didn't comply with his requests, she said.

"They yelled at me, they blackmailed me, that if I don't do what they wanted, they will cancel the AINP," Ashna said. 

"I cried a lot, I was out of my mind. These people wanted to do sex with me just because of my permanent residency."

Ashna called a friend to pick her up and ran out of the building, she said. 

"I was so afraid," she said. "I ran, I didn't look back. I just found a tree and hid there."

'They were after me'

The next day, Ashna filed a complaint with police and told her parents and a coworker what had happened.

She said she started getting phone calls from her former employer, pressuring her to retract her police complaint. 

"It was very stressful," she said. "Why do people want me to take my case back? I didn't do anything wrong."

Two days later, while Ashna was at work, she received a visit from the man's friends who wanted her to sign a statement.

The statement, obtained by CBC, said that Ashna would accept the man's apology and take back her complaint. It also said that he would pay her her outstanding salary. 

These people, they were after me. No one is concerned about my health, what I'm feeling, what I'm going through.- Ashna

Overwhelmed by the stress, Ashna collapsed from a panic attack and was taken to hospital, she said.

She claims the man's associates followed her there, insisting that she sign the statement. 

"These people, they were after me," Ashna said. "No one is concerned about my health, what I'm feeling, what I'm going through. They just wanted the papers to be signed."

Ashna was released from the hospital and went into hiding. She said she feared for her life.

"All those negative thoughts were coming to my mind, like they might kill me." 

Vulnerable workers

Foreign workers are vulnerable to being taken advantage of by employers, said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"When you have a system that creates this huge power imbalance, some employers are going to use that power imbalance to their own benefit," McGowan said.

Common cases usually involve employers extorting lower wages or unpaid overtime, he said. 

"There's going to be some of them that extorted for other things, like sexual favors, and so this does not surprise me at all."

Foreign workers aren't always aware of their legal rights and don't know where to turn for help, McGowan said.

"They are often language barriers," he said. "They're coming into an entirely new country with new rules."

Changes to program

The AINP is run conjointly by Immigration Canada and the Alberta Ministry of Labour.

Recent changes to the program at the provincial level reduce the reliance of foreign workers on their employers, said Minister Christina Gray, in a written statement.

Under the Alberta Opportunity Stream, introduced in January 2018, foreign workers can sponsor themselves, she said. 

"Workers no longer have to rely on their employers to apply for immigration status," Gray wrote. "They now have the freedom and independence to apply on their own."

While the changes are an improvement, the AINP remains fundamentally flawed, McGowan said.   

Foreign workers still need employment to apply for permanent residence under the Alberta Opportunity Stream, he said.

"If you lose your employment then you're no longer eligible for the stream," McGowan said. "There's still an opportunity for extortion and exploitation on the part of employers."

Workers must be informed of rights

Foreign workers also need to be informed of their rights in order to seek the help they need, McGowan said. 

"Those rules are only good if the workers know about them."

Changes to foreign-worker programs are also being proposed at the federal level. 

"We have heard that migrant workers simply endure workplace abuse and mistreatment rather than report it," Immigration Canada spokesperson Shannon Ker wrote in an email.

New regulations, if adopted, would enable a foreign worker being abused by an employer to obtain an open work permit and seek a new job, she said.

The Liberal government is expected to introduce the new regulations later this year. 

Ashna hopes that sharing her story will encourage other workers, especially women, to speak out about abuses they might be facing. 

"I don't want this thing to happen in the future," she said. "Every girl is my sister and it's my duty to help."

She has found a new job in a new city, but living in hiding has been hard, Ashna said.

"I left my city, I felt my friends, I left my social circle," she said. "Each day, I have to fight."