[Editor’s note: This is the final instalment of a four-part Tyee reader-funded series revealing ways applicants to Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program are exposed to fraud and other abuse.]
One year's salary is what is cost Zhu Hangshen to learn his lesson about exchanging cash for a new life.
A resident of China's Anhui province, Zhu paid $2,000 USD to a Vancouver-based company with the hopes he would eventually live with his family in Canada.
The dream was never realized and Zhu was instead left with a nightmare trying to get his money returned.
His experience sheds light on an issue of questionable immigration consultants and recruiters relying on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to encourage hopeful immigrants to hand over stacks of cash for a chance to move to Canada.
"Ghost consultants" is the name regulators and law enforcers give to illegal operators, some of whom swindle would-be immigrants to Canada. Those ghosts feed off hopes raised by the federal program that facilitates some foreign workers to enter Canada and work temporarily, often at wages below what Canadians would earn.
But the illegal recruiters who operate outside Canada's borders are beyond the reach of Canadian law enforcement. And while reporting for this Tyee reader-funded series found evidence of such illegal operations based on Canadian soil, no Canadian officials would estimate how many are operating in this country.
If there is no way to stop such illegal exploitation tied directly to its Temporary Foreign Worker Program, say critics, Canada's government is knowingly complicit in an unjust system of procuring global labour.
Zhu Hangshen had heard about a company called Canada Overseas Immigration Business Service (COIBS), and said they seemed more than qualified for the job. He felt their money-back guarantee meant there was nothing to lose.
"At that time, me and my wife were planning to immigrate so my child could have a good future," said Zhu via phone from China. "They said if my immigration was rejected they would return my money."
Zhu was told to pay money to three different branches of the company in China for the services.
He was given English training every week for a few months, but was rejected at an immigration interview years later and said his money was never returned except for his immigration application fee sent directly to the Canadian government.
He said he called each branch he'd sent money to for his refund, but was told by each it wasn't their responsibility. Eventually all the branches slowly disappeared and the headquarters in Vancouver told him to call his local office.
"I've given up," Zhu said. "My son has now already bought a house in the U.S. and lives there."
Through his own trials trying to have his money returned, Zhu found others who had the same experiences around China with similar companies online and through word of mouth.
Confessions of a foreign labour recruiter
What about the ones selling the dream? The Tyee found a former recruiter who toured rural China gathering money from immigrants willing to pay to have paths cleared so they could come to Canada. The man's employer was COIBS, the company Zhu said never returned his money.
The former recruiter, who is white and from Vancouver, would only speak to The Tyee on the condition of anonymity.
He said he was collecting money mainly on the promise to bring young women from China to Canada to work and be trained as nurses. As it turned out, he said, these were nothing more than promises.
He said as far as he knows, none of the dozens of families who gave him their life savings to help get their daughters to Canada ever had a chance of making it.
He feels regret now, recalling how the people of one poor farming village slaughtered a pig to celebrate his arrival and the good fortune they believed it portended.
At age 19, he wasn't aware he was doing anything wrong and had no idea of the qualifications needed to be a nurse in Canada, so nothing seemed awry when he was offered a great job travelling to China to recruit people.
"Basically there were numerous people being brought to China, interviewing potential people to be basically brought to Canada under false circumstances," he told The Tyee. "They would basically take the money, go through the interview process, do the paperwork, be denied... and not [get a] refund [of] the money."
Back in Vancouver, he caught on and questioned a co-worker who said not to worry about those who aren't accepted because they would have to hire a lawyer in Canada to get their money back.
He said he suspects the company actually did some form of paperwork with the Canadian government possibly knowing the applicants would be rejected.
"We're talking a lot of money," he said -- claiming he had come out of some villages with thousands of dollars. "There were a very smaller number (of Caucasians) brought in to be the white face of business."
According to a former recruiter, he realized later what he had been involved in after a friend told him it wasn't so easy to come to Canada to be a nurse, which requires a degree.
One day it became too much for him and he spoke up, which cost him his job.
"I was basically told I was being let go because I said I didn't like what I saw and what was happening," he explained. "I said, 'I'll take a voluntary dismissal over being involved with this.'"
COIBS is registered in the province as a business, but does not appear on the list of organizations allowed to operate as employment agencies in B.C. At least one of its agents is registered with the body that oversees immigration consultants.
On its Chinese website the company said it has a 99 per cent success rate for visa applications.
The Employment Standards Branch said it has been investigated with three closed complaints, two in 2012 and one in 2001.
The ministry responsible for jobs in B.C. said one case was resolved voluntarily and in the other two no breach of laws was found.
According to Chinese media reports from 2004, the company was started in 1994 and closed in 2001. Now registered in various provinces, it has a relationship with a company called Majorline.
The two owners of Majorline, according to Chinese media, were arrested almost 10 years ago for tax evasion by Chinese authorities, but it's not known if they were ever convicted. Media said they are related to the previous owner of COIBS in China.
The company's website also claims to be a co-owner of a Vancouver-based coffee company.
A spokesman for that coffee company told The Tyee it had a relationship with a company called China Coffee Holdings that was terminated seven years ago, and it no longer has affiliation with the organization.
But it's not clear if it is the same company as Majorline, as there was nothing found linking it to a company called China Coffee Holdings.
The Tyee called the Chinese branch of Majorline as a prospective immigrant and while Majorline said they could not offer immigration status, they said they would charge $5,000 CAD to set us up with a student visa.
A company representative said they would help us find work under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for $9,000 CAD.
COIBS was contacted by The Tyee and told of the allegations, but replied the person who would best address them is on vacation until March.
'Pursue the dream of Canada'
Another company called Canada CIBS Investment and Trade was found advertising jobs in Canada for mining in British Columbia and Saskatchewan for about $12,500 CAD in fees.
At the time, the Saskatchewan government said it knew of no gold mines fitting the description.
The company's English website explains the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and tells potential employers some basic steps of applying for "Labour Market Opinions," needed to get a TFWP permit.
"Deciding to embrace a brand new life in Canada is a significant step in the lives of those who pursue the dream of Canada," it reads. "Ensuring that the process is smooth and successful is an important need for most who apply. Using the right Canadian agent can play an important role in facilitating your arrival to a new day in Canada."
The website now appears to have been taken down.
A message left on the machine was not returned.
A program haunted by ghosts
Bob Brack of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC) said fighting unauthorized immigration consultants and recruiters is difficult for the organization as it is tasked with regulating those that are legitimate.
"If you're not a member of the ICCRC and you are giving advice or representation for a fee, then you are breaking the law," said Brack. "In the lingo, they're called ghost consultants."
Brack said the ICCRC has a complaint email address for victims of fraudulent consultants and it then refers complaints to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
CBSA spokesperson Esme Bailey said that since taking over the responsibility of recruiter and consultant fraud in 2006, 103 cases of immigration fraud involving consultants -- registered or not -- have been investigated.
But the agency would not say how many illegal consultants it thinks are operating in Canada.
"The CBSA will not speculate. We can say that the CBSA works closely with its partners to identify, investigate and prosecute those engaging in immigration fraud to the full extent of the law," said Bailey in an email. "Generally, CBSA's criminal investigators focus on potential fraud cases involving an organizer or facilitator involved where there is the best evidence. Other factors that are considered include the severity of the offence and resources available."
But Bailey pointed out the branch has no authority to investigate ghost consultants based in other countries.