Port Alberni company denies ‘human trafficking’ allegations after Vietnamese workers leave

Port Alberni company denies ‘human trafficking’ allegations after Vietnamese workers leave

The City of Port Alberni says the provincial and federal governments are looking into a complaint about the mistreatment of temporary foreign workers who were recruited to work at a company in the community.

While the city does not name the company, David Wiwchar with 93.3 The Peak was told by the workers at San Group that they paid $30,000 to come to Canada to work at the San Mill in Port Alberni. They were also told they’d be paid $30 an hour and receive accommodations.

The recent complaints revolve around the living conditions of roughly 16 men in a single trailer parked on the San Group property, with the only source of running water seemingly located outside.

The city says once it received the complaint about the accommodations of the workers, it notified “local authorities” of its concerns.

“The relevant provincial and federal authorities will address the situation accordingly,” said the city in a release Wednesday.

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Bob Bortolin, a senior compliance officer with the San Group, says the allegations are unfounded and that the living conditions were a product of the men staying there, and not the company’s responsibility.

“Unfortunately, I think what started this is just a labour dispute, and it’s grown legs from there,” he said.

Bortolin says the claim that the men paid the company $30,000 to come to Canada was a “complete fabrication,” and that the workers, from Vietnam, were promised a pay range between $25 an hour to $45 an hour depending on their skill set – which they have been receiving, he says.

Some of the workers also claimed that they were not being paid for overtime, which Bortolin disputes.

“We paid for overtime, we paid for statutory holidays, so that’s why it hurts right now to have these accusations put forward to us,” he said.

‘A rotten trailer’

Kim Tran, a woman who is helping the foreign workers, says the men were living in deplorable conditions and that they were “not treated right by the company.”

“Where they lived was so poor, like worse than animals to me,” she told CHEK News on Wednesday. “They lived in a rotten trailer, and they had no water.”

San Group says the trailer did have running water, though it could freeze during the winter months.

“In the winter people are told to keep the water running so it doesn’t freeze,” said Bortolin. “The workers came home from work one day, the fellow that was supposed to make sure the water was turned on had fallen asleep, the line had frozen. Yep that did happen.”

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The kitchen of the trailer is shown. (Submitted)

He says the company eventually decided to switch to a bottled water service for drinking water.

“The only thing we asked of the employees was when the bottle is empty, take it to the main manufacturing facility and pick up two more or five more bottles or whatever it is,” he said.

Bortolin says the accommodations were initially set up for six people, and that free accommodation was never included in the contract.

He says the workers asked if a few more people could move in and they agreed, until about 10 people moved in.

The company says it received no complaints about living conditions in the accommodations from workers, but an issue did arise when a landlord went to check on the building.

“We did have a situation come up a few months ago,” said Bortolin. “The property was inspected by the landlord, we have an individual who takes care of that, the site was an absolute disaster, that’s the only way you can put it.”

He said there was garbage strewn around the house, and while it was only caused by “a few people” it created issues for everyone living there.

MP steps in

On Wednesday, Tran spoke to CHEK News outside the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA), where she and some of the workers had a meeting with an ICA staff member about the complaints.

Tran says she had also spoken with Gord Johns, the Member of Parliament for Courtenay-Alberni, and that he had promised to look into the complaint and to call for federal support.

In a statement, Johns told CHEK News that, due to privacy reasons, “I cannot comment further on this matter except to say that my office is doing everything we can to help.”

“We have alerted the federal minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and the federal minister of Employment and Social Development who have the regulatory authority to act on this matter. I will continue to monitor the situation and advocate for federal assistance for those affected,” the statement reads.

Tran, who helped translate for the workers, said they are grateful for her efforts, and that of the government’s.

“The government is involved to try to help them out. I’m so happy, that’s my goal,” she said.

“Now the MP has promised me they’ll have a new life in Canada, and then all the people’s dreams will come true, that’s what I want,” she said.

Meanwhile, the City of Port Alberni says it’s committed to the protection of foreign workers.

“Workers coming to Canada must be confident that their rights are protected,” said Mike Fox, chief administrative officer with the City of Port Alberni. “I’d like to thank local agencies involved for their assistance and support for these workers and hope they are receiving the support they need.”

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The exterior of the trailer (right) is pictured. (Submitted)

The men are now staying at a dorm with the Salvation Army in Victoria.

In a statement, the Salvation Army told CHEK News that it was working with local authorities to ensure the wellbeing of the workers.

“The Salvation Army is currently assisting several migrant workers who required urgent support,” said Gavin Randhawa, manager of marketing and communications with the Salvation Army.

“We ask the public and the media to respect their privacy during this sensitive time,” he said Wednesday.

Bortolin says not all of the temporary foreign workers have filed a complaint. About 18 have moved to Victoria, while another approximately 18 remain in Port Alberni.

“When you’re looking at an allegation like that, and also the whole thing of human trafficking comes in, there’s absolutely zero tolerance on this,” he said.

“That’s why we’re taking this very seriously, we want to have our name cleared, because temporary workers come into our facility and they’re able to do things, because of a lack of people in Canada able to do the work,” he said. “We hire them, but we also know we have to treat them well. It doesn’t matter if they’re a new immigrant, we treat them well because they’re people.”

SEE ALSO: Nanaimo airport joins anti-human trafficking campaign ‘NotInMyCity’

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