Guatemala workers from Golden Eagle Blueberry Farms speak, through translators, at a media conference Tuesday. (Phil Melnychuk/THE NEWS)

Guatemala workers from Golden Eagle Blueberry Farms speak, through translators, at a media conference Tuesday. (Phil Melnychuk/THE NEWS)

UPDATE: ‘Saddest part of our lives’: Guatemalan workers describe Aquilini Group’s B.C. farm

Aquilini senior VP Jim Chu issues response to temporary workers.

Six Guatemalan women who worked last year on Golden Eagle farms in Pitt Meadows spoke out Tuesday about crammed housing with little privacy, lack of drinking water out in berry fields and working in refrigerated conditions without proper clothing.

Mirsa Martinez, at a media conference in Vancouver at the Dignidad Migrante Society office, said 76 women were living in one house on 203rd Street in Pitt Meadows that had no garbage pickup, a leaking dishwasher and only 10 showers.

Martinez also said she had to work in the refrigerated section of one of the processing plants, where temperatures dropped to 4 C, without warm clothing.

Another worker told of working in the hot sun without regular access to drinking water and with pesticides being sprayed nearby.

Gloria Suy Hernandez told of living in one house where 22 female workers lived, with only three bathrooms and where farm managers sometimes checked bedrooms at night to ensure everyone was there. She injured her arm on the job but said she didn’t report it in case she wouldn’t be called back to work the following summer.

“It was on that farm we lived the saddest part of our lives,” she said.

The six women were among the 174 workers awarded back pay this month after an investigation by the Employment Standards Branch.

RELATED: Pitt Meadows blueberry farm ordered to pay $131,000 to foreign workers.

All six are now working at other, non-agricultural jobs on an open work permit.

David Fairey, with the B.C. Employment Standards Coalition, said the women should be recognized for their courage in putting their names forward at the risk of not being allowed back in Canada.

He called for higher penalties for employers who break contracts and said the employment branch should be allowed to go on to farms to investigate working conditions.

Raul Gatica, with Dignidad, said the women left the farm accommodations after a month and a half and moved elsewhere and were still available for work, but were never called back.

Golden Eagle Blueberry Farms of Pitt Meadows, on May 13, was ordered to pay more than $131,000 to top up wages and vacation pay owed to temporary foreign workers, following an investigation.

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

The Aquilini Group issued a response to the workers late Tuesday.

“This is the first we have heard of many of these claims, and we intend to investigate them fully,” said Jim Chu, senior vice-president with the Aquilini Group.

“Having said that, many of the allegations are extreme, unfounded and false; the claim that water was withheld is particularly egregious.”

Chu added that every year Golden Eagle employs hundreds of workers to fill seasonal positions, and that no Canadians apply for them, which is why it utilizes the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.

He said foreign workers live in housing that is inspected annually, and in 2018 was found to be in compliance.

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.

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 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.

“The initial complaints about wages were lodged only after Guatemalan workers were told they had to return home,” Chu said.

“In a mediation process, an advocate told Golden Eagle that the complaints would be dropped if Golden Eagle paid the advocate $100,000 and the group of women $225,000. Golden Eagle considered this extortive and refused to pay.”

Golden Eagle Farm Group lawyer Naz Mitha said previously 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 said, adding that all workers got paid for whatever hours they had worked.

READ ALSO: WorkSafe fines Golden Eagle farms $53,690.

A recent WorkSafeBC’s review decision also told “Golden Eagle farms” 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

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

North Cowichan councillor Christopher Justice wants to see rare habitats protected in the municipality. (File photo)
North Cowichan wants rare ecosystems to be a priority in OCP

But some council members want public input into decision

The Chemainus Health Care Auxiliary is taking a pro-active approach and closing the thrift shop as a precautionary measure as of Saturday. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Chemainus Health Care Auxiliary Thrift Shop closing again as a precautionary measure

Second closure this year will last at least six weeks due to the COVID situation

The Santa’s Workshop fundraiser being put on by Camosun students on Dec. 5, 2020, will benefit Providence Farm. (Submitted)
Camosun students harness spirit holiday season with Providence Farm fundraiser

The next event, coming up on Dec. 5, is a virtual “Day in Santa’s Workshop”

Colwood resident, Geoffrey Irwin, has been missing since Sep. 27. His vehicle was found in Vancouver on Nov. 25. (Courtesy of West Shore RCMP)
Police search for former Caps player last seen in September

Geoff Irwin’s vehicle was found in Vancouver Nov. 25

Cowichan Tribes’ artist Darrell Thorne (left) and Phil Kent, chairman of the Island Corridor Foundation, hold Thorne’s first-place winning design in the ICF’s First Nations artist competition. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Cowichan Tribes’ Darrell Thorne wins ICF art competition

Artists designed perspectives on passenger trains of the future

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Another 694 diagnosed with COVID-19 in B.C. Thursday

Three more health care outbreaks, 12 deaths

A demonstrator wears representations of sea lice outside the Fisheries and Oceans Canada offices in downtown Vancouver Sept. 24, demanding more action on the Cohen Commission recommendations to protect wild Fraser River sockeye. (Quinn Bender photo)
First Nations renew call to revoke salmon farm licences

Leadership council implores use of precautionary principle in Discovery Islands

Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps poses for a photo with his parents Amanda Sully and Adam Deschamps in this undated handout photo. Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps was the first baby in Canada to be diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy through Ontario’s newborn screening program. The test was added to the program six days before he was born. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Children’s Hospital Eastern Ontario *MANDATORY CREDIT*
First newborn tested for spinal muscular atrophy in Canada hits new milestones

‘If Aidan had been born any earlier or anywhere else our story would be quite different’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

BC Ambulance Services reassures people that the service is well staffed and ready to respond. Photo by Don Bodger
BC Ambulance assures the Island community they’re ‘fully staffed’

‘Paramedics are not limited to a geographical area.’ — BCEHS

(Pixabay)
Canadians’ mental health has deteriorated with the second wave, study finds

Increased substance use one of the ways people are coping

A coal-fired power plant seen through dense smog from the window of an electric bullet train south of Beijing, December 2016. China has continued to increase thermal coal production and power generation, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that are already the world’s largest. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
LNG featured at B.C. energy industry, climate change conference

Hydrogen, nuclear, carbon capture needed for Canada’s net-zero goal

An RCMP officer confers with military rescuers outside their Cormorant helicopter near Bridesville, B.C. Tuesday, Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of RCMP Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey
Good Samaritan helped Kootenay police nab, rescue suspect which drew armed forces response

Midway RCMP said a Good Samaritan helped track the suspect, then brought the arresting officer dry socks

Most Read