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First he mopped floors. Then this B.C. janitor put Canada’s potentially abusive employers on notice

First he mopped floors. Then this B.C. janitor put Canada’s potentially abusive employers on notice
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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.

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).
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