Chilean workers say they were lured to N.S. with false promise
Men initially offered work that paid up to $8,000 a month, but ended up at fish plant working for $14 an hour
Three Chilean temporary foreign workers who came to Nova Scotia under the promise of good-paying jobs say they ended up working at a fish plant for a fraction of the promised pay and living in a house with only salt water coming from the taps.
The case highlights concerns with the temporary foreign worker program and the risks it can pose to vulnerable employees, who are often under pressure not to blow the whistle on their bosses.
But the program isn't always a success for employers, either. The men's boss says he's out about $20,000 after paying for their airfare, a car for them to use and recruiting fees.
"Things just didn't work out for them and things didn't work out for me," said Andy Henneberry of Amos and Andy Fisheries in Sambro Head, N.S. "It was a learning experience."
Raimundo Alcazar Diaz, Claudio Godoy Gangas and Victor Aburto Ramirez spotted the job ad on Facebook last year offering pay of up to $8,000 a month for fishing boat crew members.
Alcazar said he already had a good job in Chile as an engineer in the merchant marine, but he was attracted by the higher pay and the possibility of someday moving his family to Canada.
"I think this is a very good chance and a very good opportunity to me and my family," he said in an interview in January. "It's for that reason it's, 'OK, I'm going now, where I can sign?'"
Alcazar and the other two men corresponded with a recruiter from a company called Coast Canada Fish Packers.
"She said, 'No, don't worry, it's very safe, it's all good, don't worry, it's a real job,'" Alcazar said.
CBC News could not find any records about this company, and no one responded to the email address listed in the original job ad.
The men had their work permits and plane tickets in hand when, a week before they were supposed to leave, they got a phone call from the recruiter.
"She said, 'Oh listen, we have problem,'" Alcazar said.
He said they were told there was an issue with the boat and they'd have to work in a fish plant for just one month before starting work on the vessel.
They were asked to sign a contract stating that they would be unloading, sorting and packing fish for $14 an hour for 48 hours a week — which amounts to $2,688 per month before taxes. The contract made no mention of working on a fishing vessel. The men signed it and arrived in Canada at the end of June.
Henneberry said he initially was looking for fishing vessel crew members, and the pay listed in the ad was accurate for that position, but when he learned that vessel crew needed to be Canadian citizens or permanent residents, he hired instead for fish plant workers.
Henneberry said he never told the workers their stint in the fish plant would only last a month.
"I made sure it was perfectly clear what they was coming to do, and I was assured they knew and they signed the contract."
Godoy says otherwise.
"When we arrived, he told us: 'One month, and after one month, the boat,'" said Godoy. "We were deceived.… They changed the conditions of the work, the pay, everything."
Henneberry provided the men with a house to live in next to the fish plant and paid for utilities, internet and cable. Although the contract stated he would deduct $80 a week from their pay for lodging, he didn't initially deduct anything.
The men say they found out the hard way — by drinking the tap water — that the house only had salt water. Alcazar said Henneberry brought in bottled water for them to drink, but they continued to shower with salt water for the duration of their stay.
Henneberry said he lived in the house for many years and the water is "not that salty." He said the workers were immediately told not to drink the tap water.
The men eventually asked Henneberry about the promised work on the fishing boat, and say they were told their job was strictly in the fish plant.
However, they also did construction work, building a small warehouse and repairing a wharf — jobs that were not included in their contract or mentioned in the job ad. Henneberry said it was his first time using the temporary foreign worker program, and he didn't know the men weren't allowed to do work outside their contract.
Alcazar's problems intensified when, in August, he had emergency gallbladder surgery in Halifax and was told he couldn't work for six weeks and couldn't lift over 10 pounds.
"I was worried because what happen with me?" Alcazar said. "If I don't work, I don't have money, right?"
Alcazar said he was sending $900 of his biweekly paycheques of $965 home to his wife and three kids in Chile, and living off the remainder was already difficult.
Alcazar said after he went to Service Canada to explain his situation and apply for sick benefits, Henneberry fired him, but later retracted the firing.
Henneberry denies he fired Alcazar, saying there was no work available that didn't require heavy lifting, and that he couldn't allow Alcazar to work during his six-week convalescence.
"If he would have start working and if he would've tore his stitches out or something like that, guess who would've been in trouble?" Henneberry said.
We done everything we could for them.Andy Henneberry
Alcazar and the other two men, who quit, returned to Chile on Sept. 9 at Henneberry's expense.
"In the end, it was pure lies," said Godoy. "Lies about money, about work — lies."
Henneberry said he "bent over backwards" for the men, buying and insuring a car for them to use, paying for clothes, raingear and boots and lending them money. He said the men went back to Chile with one of his employee's cellphones and left behind a stack of credit card bills.
"If anyone got taken advantage of, I got taken advantage of," he said. "We done everything we could for them."
Service Canada investigation
The men said Service Canada, the federal agency that conducts inspections for the temporary foreign worker program, has told them repeatedly that staff are investigating the case, and an inspector showed up at their worksite on a day they were doing construction — clearly a violation of their contract.
Henneberry said Service Canada did speak with him shortly before the men left for Chile, and he was instructed to strictly enforce the contract, meaning he had to start charging them $80 a week for lodging and reduce their pay from $15 per hour to the stated amount of $14.
But six months after the workers' return to Chile, they haven't heard any news about the investigation and have lost hope that it will bear fruit.
A spokesperson for Service Canada told the CBC it cannot confirm whether an investigation has occurred or is ongoing. Amos and Andy Fisheries has not previously been found to be non-compliant with the temporary foreign worker program, the agency said.
A spokesperson for the provincial Labour Standards Division said the unit can't confirm whether it has started an investigation.
'Very little workers can do'
People who work in the immigration sector say stories such as these are not uncommon. Immigration lawyer Elizabeth Wozniak said sometimes "everybody feels like they got the short end of the stick."
"The employer feels like they've bent over backwards to fill in all the paperwork and do everything perfectly and treat this person fairly. The worker often feels like they didn't realize how high taxes were or what deductions were," she said. "It's almost like if everyone feels a little bit put out, that's probably the best we can aspire to."
Temporary foreign workers are vulnerable because they need the money from their job to support themselves, send to their families back home or pay back recruiters, said immigration lawyer Lee Cohen. They also often hope the work will lead to permanent resident status and enable their families to move to Canada.
"Many employees are prepared to tough it out despite a tyrannical working situation," Cohen said.
Improvements to program needed
Cohen said he'd like to see Service Canada hire more compliance officers to monitor workplaces and more severe penalties for employers who don't play by the rules.
Employers that violate the terms of the program can be fined up to $100,000 per violation, up to a maximum of $1 million each year. They can also be banned from using the program.
Muriel Jansen, the co-ordinator of the temporary foreign workers support program at the Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia, said employees need more education about their rights.
Henneberry agreed that more education about the program for both workers and employers could help avoid misunderstandings.
Closed work permits — which prevent many temporary foreign workers from easily switching employers — are one of the major factors in abuse of temporary foreign workers, Jansen said.
We felt we were slaves of Mr. Andy.Claudio Godoy Gangas
"That employee is almost indentured to that particular employer because of that closed work permit," Jansen said.
That word — indentured — evokes slavery, and Godoy said that is sometimes how they felt and were perceived.
He recalled one day when they were unloading a boat and a man came to buy fish.
"He said in English, because he thought we didn't speak English ... he said loudly, 'Here are Andy's slaves.' … So we felt we were slaves of Mr. Andy."
Role of recruiters
It's unclear how the recruiters in the case of the Chilean workers affected their experience, but Cohen said not all recruiters are legitimate.
"Some recruiters are professional and official, and other recruiters are just people who are charlatans and who overcharge for the service they provide and may or may not be familiar with the jobs for which they're recruiting people," he said.
Even Wozniak, an expert in immigration, ran into an unscrupulous recruiter when she was hiring a nanny several years ago. Although she repeatedly instructed the agency not to pass any fees along to the nanny, the nanny confessed a year after her arrival that she had to pay the recruiter $2,000.
"So if that's happening right under my nose, for sure it's happening under other people's," she said.
Henneberry used a local immigration services company that worked with another agency in Chile. He said it's possible the Chilean agency misled the men about their terms of employment.
"I think they were just looking to get them out of here, get my money, and what the hell," Henneberry said of the Chilean agency.
Paul Villeneuve is the president of NewTown Immigration Inc., the company Henneberry used to navigate the temporary foreign worker process. Villeneuve said no one with his company gave the men incorrect information about the job, but the Chilean agency they used to help with recruitment could have done so. NewTown is on the province's list of licensed recruiters.
Program a needed tool
Despite what some say are the shortcomings of the temporary foreign worker program, Villeneuve said it is usually a success for both employee and boss.
"It's good for the workers who come, it's good for the Canadian businesses who employ them," he said. "Workers often end up as permanent residents and they fulfil their dreams of living in Canada."
Henneberry said the program is necessary, too.
"I need workers. There's nobody around here to work," he said. "We cannot find enough labour workers in this country."
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That's a common refrain in the seafood industry as many employers turn to the program for help finding workers — so much so that in 2017, the federal auditor general investigated the use of temporary foreign workers in the sector.
Hopes to return
Henneberry said Alcazar, Godoy and Aburto were "good people" and he feels bad for them because they came here with "false expectations."
Alcazar said he wanted to share his experience to prevent others from going through the same difficulties.
Despite his negative experience, he wants to return someday to Canada.
"If I have a chance to [go] back, I want to [go] back with my family. Because it's a very good country to live. But I had a really bad experience."