Tricked and Exploited?

Supermarket chain grabs passports, coerces immigrant workers, suit alleges.

By Tom Sandborn 5 Mar 2007 |

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee with a focus on labour and health policy issues.

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Claimant arrived from Shanghai

T&T Supermarkets, a chain of specialty food stores serving Asian communities in Canada, stands accused of abusing the rights of foreign workers brought to Canada under a federal program.

In a notice of claim filed with the small claims division of the provincial court of B.C., Gui Qiang Zou claims he was pressured into working longer hours for lower wages than promised after the firm kept his passport and other key documents.

Zou was brought to Canada from Shanghai under a federal program that issues temporary work permits allowing a Canadian employer to hire offshore when it can prove it has been unsuccessful in hiring for a specific position within Canada. Workers entering the country on a time-limited basis under this program are required to remain employed by the company that brings them to Canada, and are not eligible to apply for permanent residence in Canada unless they return to their country of origin and apply from there.

The program, now 31 years old, has doubled in size over the past decade, bringing 145,871 temporary workers to Canada in 2005. Three departments -- Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), Service Canada (the service delivery arm of Human Resources and Social Development Canada) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA)-- work together to manage and deliver the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Critics have attacked the program for creating a class of European-style "guest workers" more vulnerable to exploitation than citizens or landed immigrants and denied the privileges and responsibilities of permanent residents.

Unfair practices alleged

Zou, a specialty cook/food product developer from Shanghai, says that he was recruited in Shanghai in November of 2002 and offered work with T&T in Vancouver. His statement of claim, filed Feb. 7 of this year, says that he signed a contract in China that specified that he would be working 40 hours a week at $11.10 per hour regular time and another eight hours a week in guaranteed paid overtime.

At the time, he claims, he was provided with a Chinese language translation of the contract.

When Zou got to Vancouver, the court document says, he was compelled to sign a second employment contract that falsely identified him as a member of management and required him to work on an as-needed basis, with no upper limit on the number of hours he could be required to work and no entitlement to be paid for overtime worked.

Zou, who speaks very little English, also claims the second contract was never translated into Chinese, and that he signed the inferior contract out of fear he would be fired and returned to China.

Further, the court document says, he was compelled to surrender his passport, social insurance card and work permit to management at T&T Supermarkets.

"T&T Supermarkets's custody of the plaintiff's travel documents prevented him from travelling domestically and internationally and deepened his vulnerability to a dependence on T&T Supermarkets," says the statement of claim.

'Widespread and systematic'

The claim goes on to say that the supermarket firm's seizure of Zou's documents is not an isolated incident, but in fact reflects "a widespread and systematic practice of T&T Supermarkets."

The statement says once Zou had re-acquired his documents in order to transfer temporarily to the Edmonton T&T, and refused to surrender them again, he was fired in February of 2006.

In the small claims court action initiated this February, Zou is seeking just over $25,000 to cover payment of wages for the balance of his contract, unpaid overtime, aggravated and punitive damages and breach of fiduciary duty.

The allegations in Zou's statement of claim are just that – allegations -- and have not yet been tested in court or proven.

No comment from T&T

The Tyee contacted the corporate offices of T&T and spoke with Ms. Melina Hung, the firm's media spokeswoman. She declined to comment on the case, citing advice from the company's legal counsel.

"This matter is now before the courts," Hung said, "and we will be defending ourselves there. We have no further comment."

Jason Gratl, the Vancouver lawyer acting for Zou, told The Tyee his client would not be available for an interview, and declined himself to comment, other than to say "our statement of claim speaks for itself."

T&T Supermarkets, according to its website is "now Canada's largest Asian supermarket chain" with eight stores in Greater Vancouver, three in Alberta, and four in Greater Toronto. The principal owners of the firm are Tawa Supermarkets Inc., a California-based chain of Asian food product stores, and Uni-President Enterprises Corp., described on the website as one of Taiwan's top 10 conglomerates.

Bureaucratic checkerboard

As Zou brings his case to small claims court, seemingly relevant federal and provincial bodies are unwilling or unable to intervene in such a case.

Shakila Bezeau, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, told The Tyee in a phone interview that her ministry could take no responsibility for Zou or other workers brought to Canada by its program once they were in country.

"Once the work permit is issued and the contract exists between the worker and the employer," she said, "if there is a problem, he needs to go to the Employment Standards Branch of the province, the courts or the police."

Gordon Williams, a spokesman for the provincial Ministry of Labour and Citizen Services, confirms that workers in Canada on temporary work permits are eligible to apply to the Employment Standards Branch for protection on matters of hours of work and overtime and the like.

On the question of seized passports and other official documents, however, the provincial body would not be able to act, he told The Tyee.

"Provincial law wouldn't cover passport issues," Williams said. "That would not be under our jurisdiction. I am not sure how it could be addressed as an employment standards case. If a complaint like this came to our offices, I suppose we might give the employer the benefit of the doubt and call them up to urge them not to seize such documents. But our legislation wouldn't really apply."

Call for 'foreign worker advocate'

Zou's story is troubling to Victor Porter, who manages community outreach programs for Mosaic, a Vancouver organization serving immigrants and refugees.

"I think it is improper for an employer to hold a worker's passport and other documents. This could create a scenario of coercion and fear. It could certainly lead to abuses. This story doesn't surprise me," he said. "It is probably not an isolated incident."

Zool Suleman, a prominent Vancouver refugee lawyer, agrees.

Suleman told The Tyee the practice of employers seizing passports and work documents from workers here on temporary work permits is "more common than we would like, especially with small employers." It is, he said, "a completely illegitimate, although common, intimidation tactic."

Suleman said "Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Service Canada don't do a good enough job of informing foreign workers of their rights," and said there needs to be "a foreign worker advocate" who looks after the rights of immigrant employees with limited training, skills and English.

"I think the best fit for such an officer would be with Service Canada," Suleman said.

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