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Inside the Allegedly Exploitative Farm Owned by One of Canada’s Richest Families

A group of Guatemalan women have come forward alleging they were sexually harassed and threatened with deportation at a company owned by the Aquilini family, who also own the Vancouver Canucks.

by Jamie Maxwell
May 29 2019, 4:12pm

From left to right: Gloria Suy-Hernandez de Sanchez, Osmery Arteaga-Sagastume and Iris Vela-Levia | photos by Juliane Krueger

A farm owned by one of Canada's richest families has been hit with a fresh set of allegations regarding the alleged mistreatment of temporary foreign workers including intimidation, poor working conditions, and sexual harassment.

The Golden Eagle fruit farm in British Colombia is owned by the Aquilini Investment Group, the Aquilini family’s company. The family has an estimated fortune of $3.6 billion and a corporate portfolio that includes the Vancouver Canucks, Rogers Arena, BC Pizza Huts, as well as many other property and business investments throughout the province.

On May 13, Employment Standards Branch (ESB), a provincial government agency that oversees pay and working conditions in BC, ordered the Aquilini Investment Group’s Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm to repay more than $130,000 in lost wages, vacation pay, and accrued interest to a group of Guatemalan labourers.

The 174 workers have been involved in a bitter labour dispute with Golden Eagle for the past 10 months. But the new allegations, some of which are being reported here for the first time, against the farm extend well beyond the workers’ pay complaints.

In a series of interviews conducted before the ruling, four of the 15 of the workers—all of whom are women, and most of whom come from Indigenous Guatemalan communities—said they were, variously, made to work in unsafe conditions, repeatedly threatened with deportation, and even sexually harassed by Golden Eagle’s male employees.

In addition to the interviews, VICE has spent months reviewing documents pertaining to the womens’ complaints and corresponding with the parties involved.

On Tuesday, the Dignidad Migrante Society, a Vancouver-based volunteer organization that advocates for the rights of migrant workers in Canada, held a press conference with seven former farm workers. The workers’ complaints included being denied water while working in the fields, being made to work in refrigerated areas of the property without warm clothing, and being housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions.

Golden Eagle strongly contests the accusations, most of which fall outside the remit of the Employment Standards Branch decision. (ESB focused its investigation on the company’s alleged failure to honour the terms of the workers’ pay agreements.)

“Farm Management did not hear any complaints of mistreatment” while the workers were still at the Pitt Meadows facility, Golden Eagle said in a statement to VICE at the start of May, and any “minor payroll mistakes” were “rectified as soon as we heard about the concern.”

In response Dignidad’s press conference, Jim Chu, senior vice president of the Aquilini Group, released a statement on May 28 that said “this is the first we have heard of many of these claims, and we intent to investigate them fully. Having said that, many of the allegations are extreme, unfounded, and false; the claim that water was withheld is particularly egregious.”

“Every year, Golden Eagle employs hundreds of workers to fill seasonal positions. No Canadians apply for these positions, which is why Golden Eagle engages workers under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program."

Golden Eagle’s email to VICE also included a copy of a letter that was sent via the Guatemalan Ministry of Labour and signed by 74 other Pitt Meadows workers; the letter described Golden Eagle as a “solid” and “responsible” company.

“When the larger group of Guatemalan employees who followed the rules of their visa and went home found out that a small group disregarded their work contracts and remained illegally in Canada,” Golden Eagle claimed, “on their own initiative they sent us the attached support letter.”

The 15 women arrived at Golden Eagle’s fruit farm in July 2018. They were there on a six-month basis to help harvest the company’s 1800-acre blueberry crops. But almost as soon as the women reached the facility, they claim to have encountered serious irregularities in the way they were being treated by the company’s senior onsite male employees.

“They treated us like animals.”

Gloria Suy-Hernandez de Sanchez is a 34-year-old mother of three from Chimaltenango, a municipality 60 kilometres west of Guatemala City. She said three of the employees would frequently yell at the women if they weren’t working fast enough, and threatened them with deportation if they complained about working conditions.

“They treated us like animals,” Suy-Hernandez de Sanchez told VICE. “We felt we could say nothing. They told us that we had to put up with it otherwise they wouldn’t bring us back, so we stayed quiet.”

As the Employment Standards decision made clear, the contracts the women signed with Golden Eagle guaranteed 40 hours of work per week. But barely a month into their time at Pitt Meadows, the work began to dry up and only a select number of workers would be assigned shifts every day.

Iris Vela-Levia, a 31-year-old from a small town in Guatemala’s Morazan province, told WorkSafe that there was a culture of sexual harassment on the farm. “[An employee] slapped [me] on my buttocks and I said ‘Don’t,’” she said in a statement to the agency in November 2018. She said the employee's response was “‘It’s normal’.”

Vela-Levia claims that one of the employees—whom she named to WorkSafe—wanted to enter into a sexual relationship with her and, when she rejected his advances, told her she was going to be fired and sent home.

Another worker, Osmery Arteaga-Sagastume, claims that Golden Eagle staff would enter the women’s living quarters uninvited to enforce an 8 p.m. “curfew” each night—a practice that intensified after the women sought help from the Dignidad Migrante Society. Like Vela-Levia, Arteaga-Sagastume said she was the subject of unwanted sexual attention from Golden Eagle staff.

“Girls you better make yourself look pretty because I'll take you out to meet boys and we'll go and have some drinks," she alleges one male Golden Eagle employee told the women soon after they arrived.

“I felt humiliated because I had already experienced this [kind of harassment] in my country,” she told VICE. “So what did we come to Canada for?”

Despite repeated requests, the women say Golden Eagle refused to provide them with contracts in Spanish—an allegation the company has not responded to—and told them to sign documents in English, a language none of them spoke or understood. “They gave us a sheet and told us where to write ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” one worker, Nereida Yesenia Guevara de Duque, said in an interview with VICE.

“I asked, ‘How can we say ‘yes’ if we don't know what we're saying ‘yes’ to?’ And they said, ‘If you want to fill it out the way I'm telling you, go ahead. If you don’t, that’s fine. We'll just send you back to Guatemala’.”

Housing was another major issue: the women say they were housed in poor and crowded units on the Pitt Meadows site.

Golden Eagle said it used a certified “third party” to inspect and approve onsite living conditions “prior to occupancy by the workers.” At peak times, the Pitt Meadows facility holds up to 2,000 employees, and the vast majority of those workers have not publicly levelled any accusations against Golden Eagle.

But the women who spoke to VICE believe they were singled out for mistreatment because Golden Eagle’s employees saw them as easy targets. “I think it's because we come from a rural place that's very humble, very poor,” Gloria Suy-Hernandez de Sanchez told VICE. “It’s because we are Indigenous and because [Golden Eagle] are the ones who have brought us here. I think that's why they feel they can treat us however they want.”

•••

In late August 2018, after what the 15 women characterize, both in their statements to WorkSafe and to VICE, as weeks of exploitation and mistreatment, around 100 Guatemalan workers went on strike during a harvesting shift to demand that Golden Eagle improve working conditions on the farm and honour the conditions of the work contracts.

The improvements never materialized, the women say.

About a month later, without formally quitting their jobs, and with financial and legal support from Dignidad, some of the women left their housing units in Pitt Meadows and relocated to a shelter for abused women. In the following weeks, they submitted official complaints to Employment Standards and WorkSafeBC. In October, their contracts with Golden Eagle came to an end.

Most of the workers returned to Central America, while a smaller group, including those quoted above, decided to stay and fight for compensation and a public apology from Golden Eagle, as well as a guarantee that the alleged exploitation wouldn’t be repeated in the future. (They also applied for new Canadian work visas, which were granted earlier this year.)

In December 2018, Wayne Tracey, an Occupational Safety Officer with WorkSafe, completed a series of analyses of the workers’ complaints, which VICE has viewed.

The analyses didn’t cover the allegations of harassment, exploitation, and inadequate housing, nor did they address claims of racial or sexual discrimination. Like Employment Standards, WorkSafe has a narrow regulatory remit, with a focus on health and safety issues raised by workers’ complaints.

But Tracey did find that a number of the women’s complaints were “in scope,” including some relating to the alleged “intimidation” and “coercion” of workers by Golden Eagle employees and the claim that workers were “threatened with being sent home.”

(Other complaints were found not to be "in scope." For instance, one worker claimed that she was exposed to working conditions that caused "cold stress" and "Injury," but WorkSafe found no evidence that Golden Eagle had responded negatively to her concerns. )

According to WorkSafe’s online guidelines, “An assessment that a complaint is in scope is not a formal determination that discriminatory action took place.” And in an interview with VICE on May 28, Nazeer T. Mitha, legal counsel for Golden Eagle Farms, said that an “in scope” decision simply indicated an acknowledgement by WorkSafe that a worker’s complaint fell within the agency’s jurisdiction, regardless of its underlying credibility.

Tracey’s assessments were made following both individual interviews with four of the 15 workers and at least one interview with a senior Golden Eagle representative.

“The following is an analysis of the worker’s Discriminatory Action Complaint, the purpose is to determine if the complaint is with in scope,” Tracey wrote in one of his assessments. “The analysis includes a summary [of] the worker’s interview and ... includes decisions of ‘scope’ based on the available evidence at this time.”

A claim is “in scope” if “there are no obvious defects with the worker’s complaint,” he added. By contrast, a complaint is not “in scope” if “the worker cannot provide evidence that they raised a safety concern, or if there is no evidence of any disciplinary action taken by the Employer.”

WorkSafe also conducted three separate inspections of the Pitt Meadows facility on September 21, October 19, and November 1 of 2018.

Following the inspection in September, WorkSafeBC officer Scott Zoretich found that, as Golden Eagle has stated, the company “had not received bullying and harassment complaints” from the workers while workers were onsite. However, he also found that, in contravention of the Workers Compensation Act Section 115 (1) (a) (i), Golden Eagle “did not have written bullying and harassment policies and procedures in place.” The company was ordered to put one in place by Worksafe, which it did in October 2018.

On 14 November, the agency questioned a senior Golden Eagle representative about claims that Golden Eagle employees pressured workers not to make contact with WorkSafe or any other government institutions, and about claims the workers were threatened with deportation, but the representative declined to comment. (The representative was entitled to do this under the terms of the WorkSafe investigation.)

The Golden Eagle controversy will likely fuel the debate around the treatment of temporary foreign workers in Canada. Applications for temporary visas, including visitors, students, and migrant workers, have quadrupled since 2015, according to a recent federal report.

Although he wouldn’t discuss any specific claims, BC Labour Minister Harry Bains confirmed that he was aware of “wide-ranging” allegations against Golden Eagle and said he wanted to protect temporary foreign workers from abuse in the province. “Employers in BC have a legal obligation to uphold employment standards and safe working conditions. Worker rights and protections must be respected. As Minister of Labour, this has been my focus from day one,” he said in an early May interview.

“We know that most employers are committed to treating foreign workers fairly—unfortunately there are some who require closer scrutiny and enforcement actions.”

•••

In Golden Eagle’s statement to VICE at the start of May, the company staunchly defended its conduct. “No one was threatened with deportation,” the statement reads. “Almost all our workers appreciated the opportunity to work and want to come back to our farm … If there are specific examples of verbal abuse or unwanted physical contact, we will investigate it right away.

“We are committed to a harassment free workplace and have and will take immediate action to rectify concerns over workplace safety.”

Golden Eagle went on to accuse Dignidad of making “extortive” financial demands of the company, which ultimately led to the collapse of a short-lived mediation process in March of this year. (Dignidad says it asked for $15,000 in compensation per worker, as well up to $100,000 for the legal and accommodation costs the organization incurred after the women left the farm. According to Golden Eagle, this latter figure was for personal expenses—an allegation Dignidad 's Raul Gatica strongly denies.)

Golden Eagle did not respond when VICE asked for evidence that the workers had “remained illegally in Canada.”

In April, after the mediation process had ended, Alana Aquilini, Director of Sales at Golden Eagle, asked for the investigation into the company’s conduct to be dismissed by WorkSafe, partly on the grounds that the workers’ complaints “disclosed no safety issues giving rise to retaliatory action” at the farm.

In documents seen by VICE, WorkSafe rejected the request, saying “to date, we have seen no indication that the complaints have been settled or withdrawn.” (When approached by VICE, WorkSafe declined to comment on the case.)

This isn’t the first time the Aquilinis have run afoul of BC employment regulations: the family has faced multiple fines from various provincial bodies in recent years for safety and land use violations at their Pitt Meadows facility. In 2012, WorkSafe denied an appeal from Golden Eagle over a $125,000 fine imposed for transporting workers in vehicles that were not “designed, maintained and operated in a safe manner.”

And on May 16, days after the Employment Standards determination was made, WorkSafe hit the Aquilinis with yet another fine—this one for just over $53,000—for again using an unsafe vehicle to transport workers at the Pitt Meadows site. In total, CBC noted in its coverage of the most recent penalty, “Golden Eagle Farms were cited for 41 violations of health and safety rules by WorkSafeBC between 2015 and 2019.”

On May 28, Nazeer Mitha reiterated Golden Eagle’s view that WorkSafe had made no conclusive findings that vindicated the workers’ version of events and stated that, due to privacy legislation, the company could not comment in detail on the allegations of harassment made against Golden Eagle employees. “I can understand the interest of the media in writing these stories and addressing them because they're important issues, but you know, they put the company in a terrible position,” he said.

•••

Speaking to VICE in March and April, the women said the entire experience had left them feeling angry and isolated.

Although she now has a job at a food processing plant in Surrey, Iris Vela-Levia alleges she sustained injuries while working at Golden Eagle that have permanently affected her ability to work. “It's really hard for me to bend over and to do tasks on the floor. I’m not really a normal person anymore,” she said.

Osmery Arteaga-Sagastume said the constant supervision she encountered at Golden Eagle was worse than anything she’d faced in Guatemala. At the same time, she added, “there's just no opportunity at home, so we felt like we had to put up with [the mistreatment in Canada] until we learned what our rights were.”

Divided between 174 women, the repayments ordered by Employment Standards range from $10 to $1,900, well below what Dignidad had initially requested for each of its 15 workers during the mediation.

Golden Eagle did implement changes to its employment practices following the WorkSafe investigation, including upgrading some of its workplace safety procedures, and implementing a bullying and harassment policy.

Gloria Suy-Hernandez de Sanchez hasn’t been back to Guatemala since she arrived in BC in the summer of 2018. With limited time left on her current Canadian work visa, she hopes to earn some more money before returning Central America later this year and being reunited with her family.

If there’s anything positive to be taken from her battle against Golden Eagle, she said, it’s that she has become a more resilient and independent person. “I do feel a little bit stronger since coming here,” she said, reflecting on the past few months. “Sometimes I think to myself, ‘How strong am I to have been able to do this?’”

Jamie Maxwell can be reached at jamiedmaxwell@gmail.com and on Twitter at @jamiedmaxwell.