NANAIMO, B.C.—Ravinder Singh sat on the bed in the Victoria room he was renting and dialled a phone number.
He was about to do what temporary foreign workers almost never do: He was about to quit.
On Sept. 18, Singh called his boss, Satnam Johal, the one-time CEO of Delta-based janitorial service company Alpine Building Maintenance, who has officially passed the company’s leadership onto his son, Harjan.
Speaking softly, Singh told Johal he could no longer afford to live in Victoria. He had to stop his work as a janitor when his lease was up at the end of that week.
The story he told was half-true. Singh couldn’t afford rent in Victoria and wanted to return to Nanaimo, where he had previously lived. But there was something he didn’t tell Johal: The previous week, Singh had been approved for a new type of Canadian work permit that allowed temporary foreign workers such as him to quit a job if they are suffering or at risk of abuse without risking deportation.
Under the temporary foreign worker program, migrant workers such as Singh can get permits to work in Canada for a limited period of time for a particular company. Their permission to be in Canada is contigent upon their employment. Last April, Singh got a work permit for Canada tied to Johal’s company, Alpine Building Maintenance.
There, he worked under what he alleges were abusive conditions that left him underpaid and threatened with taking action that would lead to his deportation for five months.
The new, open work permit Singh was granted in September, which he applied for with the help of the Service Employees International Union, allowed him to leave his job at Alpine and stay in the country.
It’s also part of the reason employers of temporary foreign workers across the country have been put on notice about their treatment of those working for them.
In granting the permit to Singh, a Canadian immigration officer found there were reasonable grounds to believe Singh had been abused or was at risk of abuse in connection with his work at Alpine.
An 11-page statutory declaration signed by Singh as part of his application for the permit alleges abuse began before his work with Alpine started. He alleges immigration consultants with Surrey company Regency Immigration charged him $15,000 to arrange the job with Alpine, which is illegal under B.C. law.
Regency denies taking the payment.
The statutory declaration also details allegations of verbal abuse by Alpine management, months of underpayment and threats that Singh would be deported if he complained.
Alpine denies those allegations.
Singh has also filed a complaint against Alpine and Regency with B.C.’s Employment Standards Branch, and a complaint with the regulatory council for immigration consultants against two Regency consultants.
The allegations have not been tested by an Employment Standards tribunal, and investigations into the complaints are underway.
Submitted as accompanying documents to a complaint with British Columbia’s Employment Standards Branch, Singh’s pay stubs show thousands of dollars less pay than he says he was owed, according to his self-kept time log. Star Vancouver has not independently confirmed his hours worked. Screenshots of conversations with a supervisor show Singh asking why he hasn’t been paid what he says he’s owed. There’s also a picture of $12,000 in cash, which he alleges was the second payment made to Regency Immigration.
In a statement sent through a litigation lawyer, Alpine told Star Vancouver the allegations have no merit, and that it would defend itself through the Employment Standards Branch, not the media.
A letter from Regency Immigration’s lawyer, meanwhile, said the company was not aware of the allegations or any complaint made against it, and said the allegations were categorically false.
Because temporary foreign workers are only allowed to be in Canada based on their jobs, and often have limited understanding of Canadian labour laws, they are particularly suceptible, generally speaking, to abuse by employers who might bet on their silence.
Leaders in the immigration field and B.C.’s minister of labour said that abuse of temporary foreign workers is likely far more widespread than what is known based on individuals who have come forward.
That may be changing. Armed with his open work permit, Singh has come forward to tell his story.
The plan for a life in Canada
Thirty-six-year-old Ravinder Singh is the fun uncle. At least, that’s what Singh’s niece and nephew have told him when they ask him to stay over every weekend at their home in Surrey, B.C.
An Indian citizen and Italian permanent resident, Singh’s relationship with his brother’s nine- and three-year-old children — and the idea that his own nine-year-old son and newborn could grow up alongside them — is what made the prospect of moving to Canada irresistible when his father and brother, who both live in Surrey, raised it last February, Singh says.
Though he had arrived in Canada on a visitor’s visa, he decided to try to obtain a work permit to stay close to his family. On the advice of someone he knew in Surrey, Singh went to Regency Immigration looking for advice on how to get a job in a warehouse in the area. Back in Italy, he had operated a forklift, and thought he would try to do similar work in Canada.
But Singh says the consultants at Regency steered him instead toward a job at Alpine, saying his English wasn’t good enough yet for anything higher-skilled than that. The consultants told him the papers to get a job at Alpine would cost $15,000, he says. Cash only.
Singh was initially reluctant to pay the money. His friends in Italy told him to come back to Europe rather than pay. But it was his father’s wish for him to stay in Canada, and Singh couldn’t get the image of what life in Canada could mean for his kids out of his head — everyone living close together, and sharing english as a common language.
“In Canada, you have a lot of options. You have a lot of options for growth, you have a lot of options for employment and that’s what I want for my kids,” Singh said in an interview through a translator provided by the union. “So that’s important for me and that’s what I want people to know.”
After he got his papers, Singh found work at Alpine wasn’t what he expected.
He had to go to Nanaimo for the cleaning job instead of Surrey, where he was living at the time.
He says that over time he was given more responsibilities to do in fewer hours. He says he realized based on his paycheques that he was not always getting paid overtime, or for the correct number of hours he worked.
Singh alleges in his statutory declaration that after the Service Employees International Union started trying to organize at his workplace, the CEO’s father, Satnam Johal, came to the workplace and met with all the temporary foreign workers, telling them their permits would be revoked if they did not do as they were told.
He also alleges Johal verbally abused him and other workers, using words like “sisterfucker” and “monkey” to describe them.
Through a lawyer, Alpine denied the events took place, calling Singh’s allegations “exaggerated” and “without merit.”
Singh called his brother. He told him he wanted to be close to his family, but his current situation was not the way he wanted to live. While he was working for Alpine, his new son was born in India — a son Singh hasn’t met yet.
A new federal government policy that he learned about through a union representative who spoke Punjabi, his native language, gave Singh new hope. If he could demonstrate reasonable grounds that he had been abused at work, or was at risk of being abused — financially, psychologically or verbally — he might be able to get a work permit that would allow him to find a better job.
The federal open work permit for vulnerable workers became available to temporary migrant workers in June, with the aim of giving workers’ whose status in Canada is tied to a particular employer the option to quit and find a new job if they’re being abused.
Of the 50 applications processed that first month, only 22 were approved. After three months, 231 were processed, and just under half — 108 — were approved. Critics say the approval rate is too low and that barriers such as lack of translation and legal help prevent many of the approximately 30,000 temporary foreign workers living in Canada at any given time from applying.
Singh filed a statutory declaration with Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada, outlining the events he says took palce at Alpine, beat the odds and got the permit — which gives him until September 2020 to live in Canada, work on his English skills and try to find an employer that will sponsor him for a long-term job leading to permanent residency.
As far as building maintenance companies in go, Alpine is a giant.
It holds the contract to clean the British Columbia Supreme Court buildings in downtown Vancouver, as well as the Cadillac Fairview malls and the Exchange Tower. The company’s website describes it as one of the largest janitorial service providers in Canada, cleaning more than 80 million square feet of retail, office and public space. In August, Alpine won an Aon Best Employers global certification.
Alpine cleaners mop the floors of the mall you shop in, dust the shelves of the library where you study and vaccuum your office floor.
Alpine is also a prolific user of the temporary foreign worker program. According to public records published by the federal government, Alpine was approved to hire 10 foreign nationals under the program as cleaning supervisors in the fourth quarter of 2018. A more recent freedom-of-information request shows the company was approved to hire 25 cleaners under the program last May. Of 5,821 approved applications for temporary foreign workers made in the fourth quarter of 2018, only 640 (11 per cent) were for more than 10 employees.
Singh is not the only employee with grievances against Alpine.
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B.C.’s Ministry of Labour confirmed there are three active and eight former complaints against the company under the name Alpine Building Maintenance BC Inc. (Singh’s is one of the active complaints).
The line between employment and status
On the phone call where Singh quit his job, Johal heard what Singh had to say then disappeared from the line for about 20 seconds. When he returned, there was someone else on the phone, too. It was Sanjay Ghai, the immigration consultant with Regency Immigration who Singh alleged took his $15,000 in cash in exchange for the papers he needed to get a job and work permit with Alpine.
A lawyer for Regency denied the payment occured.
It’s illegal for immigration consultants, who help clients make applications for Canadian permits and permanent residency, to charge their clients for arranging employment.
But to temporary foreign workers, whose status in Canada is tied directly to the employer they work for, it’s almost impossible to draw a line between employment and status. Getting status requires a company that will give you a job. Losing your job with that company means losing your permit.
And many workers do not know the charges are illegal.
“People who are financially incentivized are going to take advantage of this as long as there’s a power imbalance,” says Michael Huynh, director of professional conduct at the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, speaking generally.
Huynh came into the role at the ICCRC about a year ago, and is quick to point out how Canada’s temporary foreign worker program creates opportunities for members of his organization to take advantage of some of the most vulnerable workers in the country. The demand for papers that can get newcomers job is high, so it’s a business opportunity for the unscrupulous. He says the regulatory body needs statutory authority to better enforce rules among its members.
The opportunities for abuse within the program are well known by both the provincial and federal levels of government, and both Canada and B.C. have recently made attempts to better protect workers.
A B.C. registry of TFW “recruiters” came into force in July requiring every person helping foreign workers find jobs in Canada to register and pay a $20,000 bond. The public list had 29 entries at the beginning of November, and the Minsitry of Labour said 50 more were being processed. The ministry is also in the process of creating a registry for employers of temporary foreign worker by the end of the fiscal year, and passed legislation this year that gives the province the ability to fine and assign jail time to employers that break the rules.
In an interview with Star Vancouver, Labour Minister Harry Bains acknowledged the temporary foreign worker program does leave open opportunities for abuse by employers and recruiters.
“If they are using that type of environment to charge illegally, we’re saying the time has come to put the end to that,” Bains said. “My goal is to enact laws under which we can make sure that our B.C. laws are enforced.”
He also said the Employment Standards Branch, which is responsible for enforcing rules governing employement relationships in B.C., will soon have more resources and a mandate for proactive enforcement. There’s also a new Temporary Foreign Worker protection unit.
“Now they are in a position to go on their own if they heard that there may be illegal activities going on: They can go and start investigating,” Bains said.
Cases of newcomers being illegally charged thousands of dollars for minimum wage jobs such as janitors, farm workers and nannies, have resulted in the ICCRC, the immigration consultant reculatory council, revoking or suspending members’ licences — including two examples from Surrey, B.C., in the past year.
But Huynh says of about 118 complaints made to the regulator in the past three months, only two involved abuse of temporary foreign workers, partly because the workers being abused risk losing their jobs and immigration status by coming forward. He said the actual amount of abuse that happens will be much higher than that, as long as migrant workers’ status in Canada is directly linked to employment.
An imperfect solution
Singh filed a pair of complaints with the ICCRC in August against Ghai and his business partner at Regency, Roger Rai. Huynh said he couldn’t comment on the specific case, but said that when such complaints are filed with the regulator, there is an investigation, and a screening committee decides whether to send the members to disciplinary hearings. If the evidence is serious enough, they could have their licence suspended on a temporary basis before the hearing completes.
Singh also filed a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch against the immigration consultants.
Through a lawyer, Regency said it did not know about the complaints and denied the allegations in them.
With the open work permit for vulnerable workers in hand, Singh is uniquely positioned to speak out about the problems he had with his employer. He is currently securely employed in another janitorial job in Nanaimo.
Through a translator, he said he wants other newcomers to do their research on what rights migrant workers have in Canada.
“When someone’s new here and they’re looking for a job, they’re obviously going to go looking for a consultant,” Singh said. “I just want them to be aware to know that this is happening.”
Most migrant workers have few options to speak out, and the open work permit is an imperfect solution.
Workers who apply for the permit are required to bring their own interpreters, and are not entitled to take lawyers into interviews with the Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada official.
Natalie Drolet, a staff lawyer for the Migrant Workers’ Centre, which advocates for and represents mostly domestic workers, said the open work permit being available for 12 months could help workers gain the experience they need to apply for permanent residency under another immigration program.
But it’s no guarantee. In Singh’s case, he’s still trying to improve his English skills enough to get a supervisor position or another job that could help him secure permanent residency. He still has that vision: his kids growing up in Canada with their cousins. To understand one another, they would all need to speak English.
To that end, he attends three hours of English class every day at the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society, with a class of about 20 other recent immigrants. In October, he was completing the third of six levels, and the teacher told him he could soon advance to the fourth.
One fall day, the class was asked to fill out a worksheet titled “My Future Job.”
Singh had already completed the assignment as homework, copying out attributes to describe what he offers employers in neat, small cursive.
The list included words such as “independent” and “reliable.” Singh erased the word “fun,” replacing it with “social.” When the class was over, he would cook himself a meal and then get ready to go to work again cleaning buildings.