'I'm the cheapest worker': foreign worker denied overtime
Sask. hotel chain accused of mistreating vulnerable workers
Two temporary foreign workers in Regina said their employer failed to pay them thousands of dollars of overtime and made them work in communities not authorized by the federal government.
The two workers, a carpenter from Mexico and a housekeeper from Ireland, come from very different backgrounds but their stories are quite similar.
They arrived in Canada last year to work for Western Star Inn and Suites and both said they were mistreated.
The province confirmed it has launched an investigation into the hotel chain.
Worker moved around Saskatchewan
Mexican carpenter Balta Arguello started working for the Saskatchewan-based company in May 2013.
A company affiliated with Western Star obtained a labour market opinion (LMO) from the federal government that there were no qualified carpenters in Estevan to take this job. That cleared the path for Arguello to come to this country.
But he never worked a day in Estevan.
Instead, he was building Western Star hotels in Carnduff, Carlyle and Regina in Saskatchewan and in Melita, Man., as well.
According to a statement from the federal employment ministry, the rules of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program state workers "can only be employed at the locations that are identified on the approved LMO and work permit."
CBC's iTeam spoke with the owner of Western Star, Gary Brar about this. He promised a follow-up interview to explain why Arguello was moved around but Brar failed to show up or respond to numerous messages.
No overtime for Mexican worker
Arguello said the company also failed to pay him thousands of dollars in overtime as promised in his contract.
He said he has been silent about this for months because he was ashamed.
I just have to tell the truth and help to stop this sort of situation- Balta Arguello
"I don't want somebody else knows I'm cheaper. I'm the cheapest worker. It feels bad. And that's why I never say any word to anyone."
Arguello said he would routinely work about 100 hours of overtime each month and never got paid for it.
He said he came to Canada for a better life and instead was subject to a form of "modern day slavery."
"I just have to tell the truth and help to stop this sort of situation. I could lose my job but it may clear the path for someone else."
CBC's iTeam reviewed Arguello's pay stubs to confirm he wasn't paid any overtime.
The iTeam spoke with employees and former employees of Western Star to confirm he worked many hours of overtime and reviewed handwritten records of the hours he worked.
According to Arguello's contract with his employer, he should be receiving $30 an hour in overtime pay.
But he said not long after arriving in Canada, Brar told him that instead of overtime Arguello will be paid a $1,000 'bonus' every month
He said his boss was firm about this, telling Arguello that it "doesn't matter how many hours you work. Take it or leave it."
"And I said, 'I'll take it because I don't think I have another option,'" Arguello explained.
Despite this promise, Arguello said he didn't receive a 'bonus' payment for 5 months, until he pleaded with Brar.
"Yes, I had to beg my money," Arguello said, fighting back tears.
In December, Arguello did receive $5,000 from his employer. Brar confirmed he made the payment but denied it was for overtime. He failed to explain precisely what the payment was for.
Western Star responds
CBC's iTeam contacted Carla Eagan, a manager who's responsible for payroll at Western Star.
She couldn't explain why Arguello wasn't paid overtime.
"As far as I know, it was an agreement between him and Gary [Brar]. I’m not too sure, I can’t answer that. I'd have to ask Gary the actual reason behind it. I don’t know”
Brar acknowledged Arguello worked overtime for his company and he admits that wasn't reflected on the Mexican worker's pay cheques.
Instead, Brar said he gave money to Arguello for tickets to Mexico. Brar failed to offer any details about how much money or when those flights were taken. He hasn't returned the iTeam's calls since or responded to messages.
Arguello denied receiving any payments for travel expenses.
Different worker similar story
Niamh Scanlon is a temporary foreign worker from Ireland who started as a housekeeper for Western Star in November.
She said her LMO stated she was to work in Stoughton, but just days into the job she got her first surprise.
"Straightaway we were told that we would be moved; that we were needed in a different location than what we were initially told."
I know the rules, and yes, that's our fault.- Carla Eagan
Scanlon was transferred to a Western Star hotel in Carnduff.
She said the LMO stated she should be working as a housekeeper, but she said she was regularly working on the front desk.
Eagan acknowledged Scanlon did work "a few shifts"on the front desk and admitted sometimes hotel staff are placed in communities not listed on the LMO.
“I know the rules, and yes, that’s our fault.”
But initially Scanlon and the other Irish workers she came to Canada with didn't complain to their new employer.
"We just wanted to keep them happy and we also wanted to impress them and just work and that's what we came here for."
She said the work was gruelling and the hours overwhelming.
"We would get up at 4 or 5 depending on what the request was for the breakfast. We'd work till 2 in the day. Then we'd go back in the evening and we'd have to clean rooms — 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock depending on when the guests would leave the room. And then you'd finish around 9 or 10."
Scanlon said she received overtime for the first pay period.
I wasn't getting paid for the hours. I was drained. I was tired. It wasn't healthy.- Niamh Scanlon
But she said after that the company refused to pay any more overtime, despite the fact that companies in Saskatchewan are obligated to pay time and a half.
Yet Scanlon was expected to continue to work long hours. CBC's iTeam confirmed with a fellow employee that she often worked up to 14 hours a day for the company.
According to Eagan, Scanlon didn't work any overtime and she insists the company doesn't do split shifts.
“She was living at the hotel, but you can’t count hours of resting and sleeping in the property as overtime."
And she said regarding Scanlon’s claim to have prepared breakfast, “We didn’t even offer breakfast”.
However, the front page of the company’s website says “All of our hotels are offering hot breakfast.”
Scanlon said there is much she loves about Canada but she is shocked by this sort of treatment.
"I wasn't getting paid for the hours. I was drained. I was tired. It wasn't healthy."
Scanlon explained that, as a temporary foreign worker, this is an incredibly helpless and frightening feeling.
"When you are living and working in that environment, you cannot think straight. You're tired. You're missing home. You're confused. And you don't know what to do ... I didn't want to just leave. I didn't want to give up."
However, she did quit at the end of January.
She now has a new job and despite the way she was treated, she's decided to pursue permanent residence in Canada.
She says based on the people she met in Carnduff and Regina, she believes this country is better than the sort of treatment she's been receiving.
"Everyone I've spoken to have said 'That's not Canada and you know that. And I'm so sorry that it's happened.'"
Scanlon said she's talked with other employees at the company with similar concerns who right now are not willing to come forward.
"I also hope that something is put in place to stop people treating foreign workers this way. because we're going to get a bad name that we're taking jobs when in fact we're being sought out," Scanlon explained. "These are being advertised and when we come over here this is what's put on us."
The Temporary Foreign Workers Program has been a source of ongoing controversy across the country. Employment Minister Jason Kenney has put parts of the program on hold and the entire program is under review. He's promising changes in the weeks to come.