Employment Standards Branch orders wages paid to blueberry workers. (THE NEWS/files)

Aquilini-owned blueberry farm ordered to pay $131,000 to foreign workers

Pitt Meadows farm owes wages to 174 employees

Golden Eagle Blueberry Farms of Pitt Meadows has been ordered to pay more than $131,000 to top up wages and vacation pay owed to temporary foreign workers, following an investigation.

According to the Ministry of Labour, following a complaint, the Employment Standards Branch investigated payments made between March and September last year for 375 employees.

Many of the workers were from Guatemala.

Based on that investigation, the branch found that 174 employees were determined to be owed wages, adding up to a total of $131,631. An administrative penalty of $500, plus interest, was added on for a total amount payable of $134,237.

The Employment Standards Branch issued the decision on May 13.

The branch found that the largest amount owing to a particular worker was $1,943 for wages and vacation pay, plus interest, while the smallest amount owing was $10.

The ministry said that the amounts owed were determined by work permit documentation submitted to the federal government, saying the workers would get 40 hours of work a week.

“Payroll records obtained by the Employment Standards Branch demonstrate that employees at Golden Eagle did not receive as many hours as promised per their work contracts,” the ministry said.

The payment order basically entails topping up the wages of the workers who didn’t get the required number of hours.

Golden Eagle Farm Group lawyer Naz Mitha said that Golden Eagle interpreted the contract as saying that workers would get an average of 40 hours per week, sometimes more and sometimes less, but not that every worker was guaranteed 40 hours every week.

“They always perceived the contract, you get an average of 40 hours a week, depending on the weather, and other things like that,” Mitha said, adding that some weeks were longer than 40 hours.

The company, though, will comply, he added.

“Nobody was shorted. When they worked certain hours, they got paid those hours.”

He noted that the complaint was made after the fact and that no one complained at the time that they weren’t getting paid for the hours they worked.

According to B.C. Federation of Labour president Laird Cronk: “The decision shows that the farm withheld work and were not paying them the wages they were entitled to under their contract.”

He said in a May 16 news release that the workers were given a month of full-time work before their hours were cut back.

The federation submitted the complaint in collaboration with Abbotsford Community Services, Sanctuary Health Vancouver and Watari.

Cronk said the best way to protect temporary foreign workers is not to tie their status to a single employer and that temporary foreign workers should be eligible to apply for permanent residence. “With a change in status, we may have a chance to organize these vulnerable workers into unions and negotiate fairer working conditions,” Cronk said.

Golden Eagle Blueberry Farms is part of the Golden Eagle Farm Group, a subsidiary of the Aquilini Investment Group, which owns the Vancouver Canucks.

A recent WorkSafeBC’s review decision also has told “Golden Eagle farms” that it will have to pay a fine of $53,690 levied in October, following an inspection last summer of a bus used to carry workers.

The vehicle was checked at a farm in Pitt Meadows in August, by both a WorkSafe officer and Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement officer. The officers found a leak in the compressor discharge line, a deteriorating front airbag and a loose rear battery. They determined the vehicle, “described as a bus,” was unsafe and ordered it removed from service, said a decision by WorkSafe’s review division.



pmelnychuk@mapleridgenews.com

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