Aquilini Group defends record of B.C. farm after migrant workers found to be underpaid

Days after it was found to have underpaid more than 170 migrant workers, the Aquilini Group has sent employees a letter defending its employment record and compensation history at the company’s berry farm in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

Last week, CBC News reported the billionaire Aquilini family was ordered to repay $133,632.56 in back wages, vacation pay and interest to temporary foreign workers brought in from Guatemala to work at its Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm last summer.

The decision by B.C.’s office of the Director of Employment Standards was the latest in a series of recently unearthed problems facing workers at the farm operation, and also led to a $500 fine.

On Tuesday, Francesco Aquilini tweeted out a two-page letter penned by Jim Chu, senior vice-president of the Aquilini Group and former chief constable of the Vancouver Police Department.

The note, which was previously emailed to staff, said “every worker, including those that made the complaint, were paid in full for the hours that they worked and in line with the wages that were set out in their signed contract.”

“Contrary to some news reports, we never withheld any payments for hours worked,” the letter reads.

CBC News previously reported workers at the farm were paid $11.35 an hour. 

The letter said the Aquilini group first brought workers from Guatemala in 2017. Chu wrote that the new staff “seemed happy,” but noted some of the new workers “left the farm suddenly and without notice shortly after arrival.”

Last September, the letter said, “many more” Guatemalan workers “went missing from the farm in contravention of their work permits.” Chu said 15 of those workers, who remained in Canada, later complained to WorkSafeBC about conditions at the Pitt Meadows farm.

The Aquilini Group said the issue recently considered by employment standards was a disagreement around how the Guatemalan contract was “interpreted,” particularly with regard to guaranteed minimum hours of work per week.

Raul Gatica, a spokesperson with the Migrant Workers Dignity Association, read the letter and said the Aquilini Group did not honour written employment contracts.

“The investigator from employment standards and from workers compensation has proven that they have not been respecting the law,” he said.

Gatica also said he is concerned about the letter’s tone and the criticism aimed at Guatemalan workers.

The group’s letter also references a $53,690 fine against the company for unsafe work conditions. WorkSafeBC handed down the penalty in October after an investigation found a vehicle used on the farm wasn’t safe and that, overall, the group failed to ensure vehicles used by transport workers were maintained.

The Aquilini Group letter said that WorkSafeBC investigation was “random” and that farm management didn’t know the vehicle was unsafe before the probe. Since being fined, Chu wrote, the Aquilini Group has taken a number of health and safety measures.

“We have hired a full-time health and safety manager, we have implemented real-time and online reporting of inspections and injuries, and we have created a team at the farm that will conduct our own regular and random health and safety checks,” the letter said.

Canadian Press

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