Edmonton

'We were exploited': French migrants say Edmonton company misled them

Six workers from France claim they were misled by an Edmonton landscaping company that paid them less when they arrived on Canadian soil than they had been promised when they were recruited.

Workers claim they were asked to work for less money than promised

Cyril Belkhiter moved from Paris to Edmonton to work for Greentree Outdoor Living in 2018. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Six workers from France claim they were misled by an Edmonton landscaping company that paid them less when they arrived on Canadian soil than they had been promised when they were recruited.

Cyril Belkhiter, who is originally from southern France, said he had been dreaming of moving to Canada since the age of 18.

The 46-year-old father of three told Radio-Canada, CBC's French language counterpart, that Greentree Outdoor Living recruited him in Paris in November 2017.

"We jumped on the opportunity, my wife and I," Belkhiter said. "It was a chance for our children to come here and learn to speak English fluently."

Belkhiter, a carpenter by trade, shut down the restaurant he had recently opened with his wife and made the move to Edmonton with his family in March 2018.

"Greentree promised a wage of $31 an hour, with incentives, a company vehicle, tools, a nice life in Canada," he said. 

Lower wages 

The reality was a far cry from his employer's promises, Belkhiter said. 

When he arrived in Edmonton, Greentree asked him to sign a new contract for $25 an hour, $6 less than he had been promised in Paris. 

Less than a month later, he was asked to sign another contract for $13.60 an hour, which at the time was Alberta's minimum wage.

Radio-Canada has obtained copies of both contracts. 

"[Greentree] told me it was normal, that everyone received a base amount and that the final pay would be received when the job was done," said Belkhiter. "I hadn't been told those details upfront."

Communicating in English with his boss, Gordon Neustaeter, was difficult for Belkhiter.

Neustaeter's answers were vague or dismissive, he said, adding that working conditions didn't improve. 

"We were exploited. When we said that we weren't on board with something, he would say, 'That's fine, don't do it and you won't get paid.'"

The carpenter said he felt trapped in a low-paying job, but his work visa tied him to his employer.

His family struggled to make ends meet, even turning to the food bank for help.

Belkhiter left the job in July 2019, and believes that Greentree owes him about $3,000 in wages. 

Greentree did not respond to Radio-Canada's questions. 

Others in same boat

Five other migrant workers from France say they had similar experiences.

Laura Point, Hervé Martinez, Nicolas Bortolotti, Grégoire Boitière and Serge Frangul told Radio-Canada they were also misled by Greentree.

Nicolas Bortolotti, Cyril Belkhiter, Laura Point, Hervé Martinez, Grégoire Boitière and Serge Frangul say their dreams of living and working in Edmonton were dashed. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Point was recruited from Paris to work as a general manager for the company in Edmonton.

"They were a growing business with lots of potential. I like challenges, it was very tempting," said Point, who was employed by Greentree for 13 months starting in March 2018.

She was promised $18 an hour, according to her letter of employment, obtained by Radio-Canada.

But Point said she was asked to sign a new contract four days after her arrival, this time for minimum wage, $13.60 an hour.

"I had already left everything behind," Point said. "I didn't have another choice."

Point filed a complaint with Alberta's Employment Standards after being let go from her position in April 2019. Radio-Canada did not confirm the circumstances surrounding her dismissal. 

She claims Greentree owes her severance pay and outstanding wages, for a total of $5,448.

Hervé Martinez filed a civil suit against Greentree for unfair dismissal. They agreed on a settlement, and a provincial court judge ordered Neustaeter to pay Martinez $6,456.

Multiple complaints

Employment Standards has received 19 complaints about Greentree between 2011 and 2019, spokesperson Gurshan Dhillon said in an email. 

It has issued warnings to Greentree, but has not fined the employer because Alberta labour rules weren't broken, Dhillon wrote.

Employment Standards only verifies if the wages paid correspond to the current work contract, but doesn't look into whether or not the original contracts were honoured. 

Greentree Outdoor Living's offices are located in south Edmonton. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Several of the former Greentree employees that Radio-Canada spoke with allege that the new contracts weren't sent to Immigration Canada, as stipulated in the rules for employer-specific work visas.

Those rules prevent employers from asking workers to sign less advantageous contracts than originally offered. 

Immigration Canada wouldn't confirm whether or not it is investigating Greentree's alleged practices. 

'Huge disappointment'

Point left Edmonton after what she describes as a "huge disappointment." She eventually found work in Quebec. 

Nicolas Bortolotti and Grégoire Boitière allege they were also forced to work for lower wages and weren't compensated for overtime hours. They both returned to France.

Serge Frangul had sold his house in France to move to Edmonton with his wife in 2017. 

He was let go from Greentree in March 2019. Radio-Canada did not confirm the circumstances of his dismissal. 

The couple is now considering moving back to their home country.

Belkhiter successfully petitioned Immigration Canada to change his work visa to an open one, allowing him to seek work elsewhere.

He moved to Red Deer for a fresh start with his family, and is now working as a landscaper for another former Greentree employee.

"I'm in a much better place today," he said. 

With files from Axel Tardieu.
 

About the Author

Josee St-Onge

Journalist

Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca