Alberta bound; Foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation

Ernesto Rodarte, a foreign worker from Mexico, says he and other Mexican workers are being exploited by employers even though Calgary is in the middle of a major labour shortage. Rodarte came to Canada in March to work for Bridge Brand Food Services as an overnight warehouse worker. He describes the company as a "slavedriver" that takes advantage of workers from other countries who are here trying to earn some money for their families. He says he was fired because he refused to work on a day off, missed a mandatory meeting that was scheduled on a day off and because he once called in sick after his shift was supposed to start.

Rodarte makes a number of claims about his former employer's employment practices. He says his contract specified that he would only be required to work 40 hours a week and eight hours each day. However, he says the company regularly scheduled workers for 10-hour shifts and then asked them to stay for another two or three hours each night. "They were pushing so hard for us to stay an extra couple of hours," he says. "It's very physically demanding. At the end of the day you want time to rest and recover."

He says he was regularly asked to work on his two scheduled days off, and that even if he refused, his name would appear on a schedule. Rodarte also claims that a supervisor threatened to fire him and other foreign workers if they didn't meet "impossible" productivity quotas each day. "He told us he was going to let us go unless we got those numbers," says Rodarte.

He says the company didn't report injuries to the worker's compensation board and that he was injured three times, though none of the injuries were reported. In one instance, Rodarte says he twisted his ankle and was limping. "I asked them, 'Am I supposed to work like this?' and they said, 'yes.'" When he got home after the shift was over his ankle was severely swollen.

Rodarte had lived in an apartment provided by the company but says he was kicked out a week after being fired, even though he had paid the full month's rent. He shared the two-bedroom apartment with three other workers.

He says he's speaking out because he doesn't want other employers to get away with exploiting foreign workers. "They feel they can exploit everybody because we're foreign, from Mexico. They have the impression we are very ignorant and know nothing," he says, adding that that attitude leaves "a bad taste in my mouth. Not a lot of people stand up for themselves, because they feel frightened they might end up losing their jobs. Most of them have families and they need that income to support their families."

Rodarte has filed a complaint against the company with the Alberta government and is considering filing a human rights claim.

Tim Sinclair, director of human relations at Bridge Brand Food Services, says "all of the allegations are false." He says the company can't comment on Rodarte's claims because "we don't discuss individual performance issues outside the organization." However, he says the company has never asked an injured worker to continue working, and it regularly files injury reports. He adds that no worker is forced to work overtime or to work on days off. "All of our time is voluntary," he says.

Sinclair says the company in no way exploits foreign workers. "We know that our people, everyone of our people, are really our competitive advantage. We treat everyone equally. There's nobody treated differently from myself down," he says.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), says he's heard many stories similar to Rodarte's in the last few months. The AFN recently opened an office to help foreign workers and has already dealt with 100 different cases.

"I'm certainly not going to suggest that every employer who uses temporary foreign workers takes advantage of them, but there's certainly a significant minority of unscrupulous employers who do take advantage of (foreign workers') vulnerability to force workers to do things that are both illegal and dangerous," says McGowan. He says complaints range from foreign workers not getting paid what they were promised to workers being forced to do dangerous jobs without proper training or safety equipment.

Although temporary foreign workers are supposed to be protected by the same Employment Standards Code as all other Alberta workers, McGowan says that's not happening. McGowan would like to see the government conduct unannounced workplace inspections of companies employing foreign workers. He says the current system relies on foreign workers making complaints before there's any investigation. "The provincial government is relying on vulnerable and often scared temporary foreign workers to make complaints in a system they don't understand and often in a language that's new to them," says McGowan, adding that foreign workers often won't complain about employers because they have to make money to send home to their families and can't risk being deported.

"The employers know the workers are going to be very unlikely to complain, and they also know no one is watching them, so they end up trying to get away with practices that are outrageous."

Another issue the AFN is hearing complaints about is recruiters charging temporary foreign workers fees to get them jobs in Canada. Rodarte was charged $1,000 by a Calgary broker, and he says many other Mexican workers have paid the same fee. "We knew that money was going into his pocket, but you don't know how to come to Canada. Even though he's robbing you, you need this guy," he says.

McGowan says the government should also be going after such employment brokers more aggressively to ensure worker rights.

Terry Jorden, spokesperson for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry, says employment standards investigators are currently looking into Rodarte's complaint against his employer. "The Alberta government is grateful for workers like this coming forward with problems. We realize how difficult it is for temporary foreign workers to make the complaint, to figure out which government department handles these sorts of things and no doubt they have a certain amount of fear they may lose their jobs," he says.

Jorden says a couple of weeks ago the provincial and federal governments signed an agreement to share information on temporary foreign workers, which now allows the province to find out where temporary foreign workers are employed. "With that information we'll be better equipped to respond," he says.

Jorden couldn't comment on whether the government will start doing unannounced inspections, but he says the government is concerned about any exploitation of foreign workers. "Temporary foreign workers make up a fraction of one per cent of our workforce. However, these kinds of problems that are coming up can really damage Alberta's reputation around the world, and so although the numbers are small, we take them very seriously, and we're trying reduce and eliminate the occurrence," he says. He also says it is illegal for recruiters to charge employees to get them a job and he says the government investigates such complaints.

Fast Forward Weekly, Page 10, Thurs Aug 16 2007 
Byline: Amy Steele

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