CBC News has learned details of why nine temporary foreign workers were released from their obligations to a P.E.I. farm business, and has spoken directly with two of those workers.
The federal government granted the employees open work permits to enable them to escape an abusive situation, a program that became available in 2019. They joined between 26 and 42 workers on the Island who were allowed open work permits between the time the program launched and the end of May 2022.
CBC News agreed to not identify the two workers who granted interviews, including not naming the farm business involved. The workers are concerned about reprisals against their families back home, from the agent in Vietnam who recruited them, as well as from the P.E.I. farm operator.
“It was all a scam,” said one worker, whom we will call Thi.
News of trouble on the farm is deeply concerning to the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture. Federation executive director Donald Killorn said it is essential for the industry that the program functions well.
“The temporary foreign workers program is one of those federal tools that is critical,” said Killorn.
“Our membership wants to see it work properly. We don’t want to see it as a tool to take advantage of people. We need the program to work — and that includes enforcement. It includes the proper treatment of temporary foreign workers.”
Labour shortages are starting to become an issue across a wide variety of sectors on P.E.I., but Killorn said they have been a problem in agriculture for years.
“At this point, I would say the industry on Prince Edward Island is dependent on temporary foreign workers,” he said.
40% of farm workers?
Numbers from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Statistics Canada underline how deep that dependence is.
IRCC reports that 1,475 general farm workers came to P.E.I. in 2021 under the temporary foreign workers program, with an additional 85 people coming to be nursery and greenhouse workers. Statistics Canada reports P.E.I. had a total of 3,600 jobs in agriculture that same year.
The methodologies between the two agencies are not the same — there could be differences in the way workers are categorized — but the numbers strongly suggest that about 40 per cent of the people holding down jobs in agriculture on P.E.I. are temporary foreign workers.
In total, across all industries, about 2,400 temporary foreign workers came to P.E.I. in 2021. Of those, about 15 were granted open work permits.
Seeking release from obligations to employer
The open work permit program was created in 2019 specifically to allow workers in abusive situations to leave the employer that had brought them to Canada.
Under the terms of their visas temporary foreign workers may only work for the employer that sponsored them, under normal circumstances.
According to the website for the open work permit program, “Any behaviour that scares, controls or isolates you could be abuse. Abuse can be physical, sexual, financial or mental.”
Before issuing an open work permit… an officer must have reasonable grounds to believe that the migrant worker is experiencing abuse.– Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada
In an email to CBC News, IRCC further clarified the process of granting workers permission to move.
“Before issuing an open work permit for a vulnerable temporary foreign worker facing abuse, an officer must have reasonable grounds to believe that the migrant worker is experiencing abuse or is at risk of abuse in the context of their employment in Canada,” the statement said.
“The ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ standard requires something more than ‘suspicion’ but less than the standard in civil law of ‘proof on the balance of probabilities.'”
With an open work permit the worker, previously restricted to one employer, can legally work anywhere in Canada in any job.
Privacy concerns cited
Due to privacy considerations, IRCC does not provide specifics of the number of open work permits granted in any one province. It reports values under five as a blank, and rounds other data up or down to the nearest multiple of five.
IRRC recorded blanks for open work permits granted on Prince Edward Island in 2019 and 2020. The statistic was 15 in 2021, and also 15 in the first five months of 2022. Given the rounding requirement, the actual total could be as low as 26, and as high as 42.
Despite the granting of these open work permits, no farms on P.E.I. have failed a federal government inspection of their operations for temporary foreign workers.
Service Canada publishes a list of workplaces that have failed inspections. The last failed inspection on P.E.I. was in 2018 — at a veterinary pharmaceutical manufacturer.
CBC News has traced 22 of the open work permits issued on P.E.I. back to the same farm operation.
Expenses start with Vietnamese agent
CBC News talked to two temporary foreign workers from the farm. The interviews were conducted in Vietnamese, and quotes presented here are translations.
Thi arrived on P.E.I. last fall. She said she had paid an agent in Vietnam a little more than $60,000 to set up the arrangement to work on an Island farm.
Her family had to borrow the money from loan sharks, she said, but she was promised working on the farm for a year would not only let her pay that money back, but also earn extra cash on top of that.
There are rules built into the program to help guarantee that possibility.
Employers are required to pay for the return ticket from the home country to Canada. They must also supply accommodation at a maximum rate of $30 per week. If that accommodation is not on site, transportation to work must be provided.
In addition, the program sets minimum wages for the various jobs workers are coming to Canada for, based on wages being offered locally on Job Bank. On P.E.I., that’s currently $15 an hour.
Workers must also be paid for a minimum of 30 hours per week during the mandatory two-week self-isolation period that was put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Promised work never offered
The problems started early, Thi said.
She was not paid for the self-isolation period; nor was she offered work at the end of that period. The employer did not provide accommodation, Thi said, and she had to rent a place in Charlottetown.
Her contract was for 40 hours a week, she said, but months went by with no work and no pay.
“My husband was struggling financially during the pandemic, so he couldn’t send much,” she said.
Every day I kept thinking about whether I would have work tomorrow and when I could finally have some income.– Worker we are calling Thi
“The money didn’t really help because, you know, Vietnamese money doesn’t have as much purchasing power as the Canadian dollar.”
There were many days when she couldn’t afford groceries, and so she went to the community fridge in Charlottetown to get food. She often walked around the city picking up beverage containers in order to collect the deposit.
“Every day I felt like I was in crisis mode,” she said. “Every day I kept thinking about whether I would have work tomorrow and when I could finally have some income.”
‘No choice’ but to sign forms
Managers at the farm did not give her any explanation for the lack of work, she said; they just told her to wait.
In February, Thi was called into an office in Charlottetown. She was presented with a number of forms to sign. A temporary foreign worker from the farm was there to help translate them.
She said one form stated she had been provided with transportation and accommodation. Another form said she didn’t work from October to February because she asked for vacation time. She said she knew signing these forms would be lying, and refused.
“Then they told me if I didn’t sign, they would send me back to Vietnam the next week,” she said.
She decided she had no choice but to sign.
Work for weeks, then none
Another worker, whom we will call Van, told CBC News of a similar experience.
Van worked at a different farm than Thi, but managers told them the operations had the same owners.
Van arrived on P.E.I. in September. Like Thi, he said his contract was for a year and promised 40 hours of work a week. He had also paid an agent more than $60,000 to make the arrangements, he said.
That was when I realized the whole thing might have been a fraud.– Worker we are calling Van
The harvest was underway, so Van had work in September, but like Thi, he said he had to provide cash in order to receive his paycheque. His pay worked out to only $11 an hour, he said.
Van said he was also told he could work at another farm if he wanted, and his employer sponsor would still issue him a cheque — as long as he paid cash for it. But he knew that was illegal under the terms of his work permit.
“That was when I realized the whole thing might have been a fraud,” said Van.
Told inspection was coming
Work at the farm stopped sometime in October when the harvest was done.
There was no work throughout November, he said, but in November he also was called in to sign forms. He was told someone from the federal government was coming to inspect the farm.
He was not allowed to keep copies of any of the forms, he said, but he recalls they were similar to what Thi had signed, attesting that the employer had provided him with transport, accommodation, and money to pay for living expenses — none of which was true, he said.
Because he was without work from the middle of October to December, he was also made to sign a vacation request form.
“I read the first few forms. Then I stopped reading and just signed because there were so many,” said Van.
“The other workers there with me didn’t even read those forms. They just wanted work.”
A net loss in cash-for-cheques arrangement
Even during the months when he wasn’t offered work, Van said he was still paying the management cash in order to receive his paycheques.
The cheques had value to Van, because they were a record of hours worked that could eventually help him get permanent residency in Canada. He was even willing to take a loss on his payment for the cheques.
At $13 per hour and 40 hours a week, his gross pay for two weeks — including vacation pay — was $1,081.60. With standard deductions, net pay was $888.19.
In November, while he wasn’t working, he paid $2,400 in cash for two biweekly cheques. That was, for him, a net loss of about $600 for the month.
The farm company told him he had earned $500 in December, so he did not have to pay so much cash to receive his two cheques — $1,900 instead of $2,400. Still, that was about $100 more than the $1,776.38 face value of the cheques.
Van worked at the same place from December to March. In the end, he didn’t pick up his cheques for February and March, he said. The reason? He didn’t have enough cash to give the farm for them.
Thi also ended up working at the farm for no pay.
She was called to work In February, and worked for nine days that month, and then 13 more in March. To this day, she said, she has not been paid for those hours of work.
This is part one of a three-part series. In part two tomorrow, we look at how an immigrant association and other local people helped these and other workers from the farm company get open work permits.