The Aquilini Group has responded to a decision that ruled the company underpaid temporary foreign workers (TFWs) hired to work at its blueberry farm in Pitt Meadows.
On May 13, 2019, a written decision from the province’s Labour Employment Standards branch stated that it found the Employment Standards Act was contravened in connection with the operation of the Aquilini-owned Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm.
The Aquilini family owns a variety of entities, including the Vancouver Canucks.
The decision ordered Francesco, Paolo, and Roberto Aquilini, CPI-Cranberry Plantation Inc., Global Coin Corporation, Lewis and Harris Trust Management Ltd., and Geri Partnership carrying on business as Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm to pay a total of $133,632.56 in back wages.
The decision noted that in 2018, a total of 174 TFWs came from Guatemala to work on the farm, with the expectation they would be working for 40 hours a week, at a rate of $11.35 an hour. However, they had only worked about a month before they had their hours cut back.
As a result, the Migrant Workers Dignity Association (MWDA) launched a formal complaint on behalf of the workers to the BC’s Employment Standard branch. The complaint listed a with a number of alleged violations including that workers were subject to “improper” tax deductions and wages were paid “inappropriately,” although no specification was given as to what this meant.
On Tuesday, Francesco Aquilini — managing director of the Aquilini Group — tweeted a letter sent out to employees from the company’s senior vice president Jim Chu.
“I would like to stress first and foremost that every worker, including those that made the complaint, were paid in full for the hours that they worked and in line with the wages that were set out in their signed contract,” wrote Chu, adding that they had not experienced any issues similar to those that arose in 2018.
This letter went out to Aquilini employees, giving them the background to recent news stories about our Golden Eagle Farm. pic.twitter.com/3BoXhF1vWq
— Francesco Aquilini (@fr_aquilini) May 21, 2019
Chu noted that the Guatemalan workers brought to the farm in 2018 were “more ‘city’ people as opposed to the ‘farmers’ who worked for [them] the year before.”
“Some of these new workers left the farm suddenly and without notice shortly after arrival. This was reported to CBSA. In September 2018 after the blueberry season ended, we started to return the remaining seasonal workers back to their home countries. It was at this time that many more of the Guatemalan workers went missing from the farm in direct contravention of their work permits. We heard that most went to the US and a group of 15 workers stayed in Canada.”
Chu said it was the 15 workers who lodged complaints with regulatory agencies like WorkSafeBC claiming mistreatment and they did so “only after they were told they had to go home.”
“These complaints were never raised when they worked with us,” he said.
As for the recent adjudication by the Employment Standards Branch, Chu said it “centred only on the wording in the Guatemalan labour contract.”
“The employer intention was that this new contract would parallel the structure of the established Mexican and Jamaican worker contracts that allow us to send workers home before six months, and to pay an average of 40 hours a week, not a minimum.”
There was disagreement with the Guatemalan contract interpretation and Chu said the Aquilini Group’s legal counsel met with the Employee Standards Branch.
“The adjudicator analyzed the contract and ruled in our favour that the contract allowed us to send workers home before six months. The adjudicator did not rule in our favour on the 40 hour minimum per week workload issue.”
According to Chu, no payments were withheld from workers and they were always paid in full.
Chu also addressed a recent WorkSafeBC fine for an unsafe vehicle on the farm. He claims that last summer, a foreign worker drove the vehicle “even though he knew it had a mechanical defect.”
The worker reportedly did not report the defect to his supervisor and “farm management did not know about the defect until after the random WorkSafeBC inspection.”
“This is clearly an area where we must improve,” wrote Chu. The letter notes that since the inspection, a full-time health and safety manager has been hired, a real-time and online reporting system for inspections and injuries has been implemented, and a team has been created to conduct its own regular safety checks at the farm.
With files from Eric Zimmer