Berry pickers exploited: Judge

Surrey resident Avtar Kaur Dhindsa worked in strawberry fields in Abbotsford in 1997 and was later ordered to repay excess EI benefits. She appealed and is among the pickers who were cleared in a ruling by the Tax Court of Canada.   - LEADER FILE PHOTO
Surrey resident Avtar Kaur Dhindsa worked in strawberry fields in Abbotsford in 1997 and was later ordered to repay excess EI benefits. She appealed and is among the pickers who were cleared in a ruling by the Tax Court of Canada.
— image credit: LEADER FILE PHOTO

Elderly Indo-Canadian berry pickers were systematically exploited and persuaded to collude with their bosses to defraud the Employment Insurance (EI) system, a federal judge has concluded.

The 782-page decision ends a year-long appeal in which 75 Lower Mainland farm workers fought to overturn orders to repay $500,000 in EI benefits and penalties for claims in 1997.

The outcome is a mixed decision – Tax Court of Canada Judge Dwayne Rowe ruled about half the pickers must repay benefits but struck down orders against more than 30 others, depending on individual circumstances.

However Rowe’s findings are a hammer blow against an industry he found is rife with opportunity for “rotten” business practices.

“Something is radically wrong with certain aspects of the federal family reunification program and also the berry and vegetable industry in British Columbia,” Rowe stated.

He gave the example of a 65-year-old grandmother who travels two days from her village in India to Vancouver and is quickly hired by a contractor to pick berries from dawn to dusk – likely at below minimum wage – and be transported in a dangerously crowded van.

Rowe said workers endure such hardship because they are assured they’ll get cheques from the Canadian government through the winter “provided they obey – absolutely – the dictates of their employers and pay the full amount of tribute exacted at their discretion during the settling-up meeting.”

Female workers are shut out of the financial dealings, he said, and the fine details of the EI fraud are often negotiated with the contractor by husbands, sons or sons-in-law.

All the berry, fruit and vegetable pickers in the appeal case were from Delta, Surrey, Richmond, Mission and Abbotsford and all worked for contractor S & S Harvesting Ltd.

Pickers were paid on a piece rate but the employer falsified records to create the illusion they were paid more money on an hourly basis – to deliver workers enough insurable hours to qualify for EI.

The mastermind of the scam at S & S was owner Surjit Randhawa, who Rowe said exerted “Svengali-like control” over his employees.

“To the majority of them he was a god-like figure who had to be obeyed even years later when they no longer had any relationship with him,” the judge found.

“Randhawa had willing subjects who were quite content to do his bidding” because it was in their interests to avoid repaying EI benefits they’d already received based on Randhawa’s faked employment records.

“The fact that he continued to operate a labour contracting business as of the 2006 season – and may still do so – is cause for concern as he seems to be able to carry out these EI/UI scams with impunity.”

Rowe also found the lot of workers in the industry hasn’t improved much.

Blueberry pickers are better off now thanks to rising demand for the lucrative crop, he said, but strawberry and raspberry pickers get “the same dismal earnings” they received in 2007.

The judge called for possible criminal investigations for forgery, perjury or conspiracy to commit fraud.

He also urged the province to tighten contractor licensing and boost enforcement of employment standards and workplace safety.

“The transportation of workers in unsafe vans with makeshift seats – built by laying planks on overturned plastic buckets – and cramming 20 or more people into a 15-passenger van is not only dangerous, it borders on criminal.”

Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society executive director Charan Gill said similar prosecutions are also underway against at least 300 other farm workers.

Gill considers it a colossal waste of money – particularly since the case against the 75 from 1997 has cost several million dollars, much more than the government ever stood to recoup.

Gill said the same practices continue today – pickers are paid at piece rates, records are later converted to hourly for reporting purposes and fraud continues unabated.

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