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Once-celebrated P.E.I. apple orchard faces no sanctions despite foreign worker abuse claims | CBC News

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When it broke ground on Prince Edward Island in 2014, Canadian Nectar Products had former high-profile politicians pitching a company with the potential to bring jobs and people to the small province.

It had a lofty goal: transform an island known for potatoes into the apple-growing capital of the world, as the local newspaper reported. Former B.C. Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal and former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps had shares in the business. Two successive Island premiers, Robert Ghiz and Wade MacLauchlan, also seemed eager to support the business.

But within a few years, the original company president, a controversial businessman who would later be found to have taken bribes in New Brunswick, had left the company. Grewal and Copps would also step away. 

Under a new president, the operation became mired in multiple allegations of worker abuse, with some former employees claiming their jobs didn’t exist, that they were extorted for large sums of money and that some were expected to live in substandard housing.

“The whole experience was like a nightmare for me,” said Yan Liu, who moved to Canada from China in 2021.

  • Watch the full documentary, “Rotten Promises,” from The Fifth Estate on YouTube or CBC-TV at 9 p.m. ET. It will also stream on CBC Gem.

Liu said he was promised a job on P.E.I. and a path to permanent residency, but instead paid tens of thousands of dollars for a work permit for a job that didn’t exist.

Liu is one of at least two dozen workers who have filed claims of abuse with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada against Canadian Nectar Products and a group of affiliated companies.

The Fifth Estate visited the Canadian Nectar Products orchard in Alliston, P.E.I., in January and saw unpicked apples rotting on the trees. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

Canadian Nectar Products is at the centre of what federal authorities allege is a web of companies defrauding the government and foreign workers. 

One migrant workers’ advocate on the Island says the company highlights systemic issues with oversight and accountability with Canada’s temporary foreign worker program.

An investigation by CBC’s The Fifth Estate has found at least 31 temporary foreign workers, out of 217 Canadian Nectar Products and its affiliated companies were given permission to hire from 2017 to 2021, have come forward to the federal government with abuse allegations and received federal approval to be released from their work contracts as a result.

But The Fifth Estate has also found that despite complaints about the company’s practices going back to 2018, Canadian Nectar Products and its affiliated companies have not yet faced federal sanctions, such as monetary penalties or being formally banned from hiring temporary foreign workers.

The companies did not respond to requests for comment from The Fifth Estate.

Canadian Nectar Products has a farm in Alliston, P.E.I. It is pictured here in July 2023.
Canadian Nectar Products has a farm in Alliston, P.E.I., where former foreign workers allege they were not given full-time hours and asked to pay large sums of money for paycheques. The company’s owner has not responded to interview requests. (Jon Castell/CBC)

The temporary foreign worker program allows a business to bring in workers from outside Canada if the company can make the case that it can’t hire locally.

The foreign workers are then provided closed work permits, which tie them to the company, leaving them unable to switch jobs once in Canada. Last year, a UN envoy called the agriculture sector’s reliance on this system “a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.”

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which raided several locations in P.E.I. in June 2022, alleges in a search warrant application that Canadian Nectar Products was working with other Island businesses and an immigration firm to defraud foreign workers by “charging foreign nationals large sums of money in exchange for jobs related to the agriculture industry on P.E.I. that do not exist.”

The CBSA would not confirm if its investigation is ongoing, citing privacy. 

Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal department that screens business applications for temporary foreign workers, declined to comment, also citing privacy.

In 2014 Canadian Nectar minority shareholder Sheila Copps, second from right, introduced the company's principles to then Premier Robert Ghiz, second from left, and other P.E.I. politicians. Others in the photo include former Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal, left, former Nectar owner Amarjeet Jatana, centre, and former P.E.I. MLA Ronnie McKinley, right.
During a visit to the P.E.I. legislature in 2014, Premier Robert Ghiz, second from left, stands with former Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal, left, former Nectar president Amarjeet Jatana, centre, Sheila Copps, second from right, and former P.E.I. MLA Ronnie McKinley, right. (Submitted by Randeep Panag)

Grewal and Copps told The Fifth Estate that they were disappointed to see the allegations against the company they once promoted, but said they stepped away from it before the network of companies first brought in temporary foreign workers.

“It was supposed to be an apple company and ended up being something else,” Copps said.

Former P.E.I. premiers Ghiz and MacLauchlan, both of whom met with company founders in the early days, declined to talk to The Fifth Estate about Canadian Nectar. 

Alleged cash payments and fake jobs

When Chinese national Liu found himself inside an immigration consultant’s office in Vancouver in November 2021 handing over thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for a work permit, he thought something wasn’t right, he said. So he secretly recorded meetings with his phone.

In one secret recording, a woman can be heard saying in Hindi: “Take the $20,000 and give him the permit.”

Liu is one of four workers who spoke with The Fifth Estate, alleging they paid up to $30,000 to immigration consultants who promised them jobs in Canada and eventually a path to permanent residency. All were dealing with companies the CBSA alleges were connected to Canadian Nectar Products.

WATCH | A father from China secretly films payments he says were for a work permit: 

Foreign worker secretly films cash payments to immigration consultants

A father from China secretly filmed meetings with immigration consultants where he alleges he paid for a work permit as part of what federal authorities allege was a larger scheme to defraud foreign workers and the government. (Submitted by Yan Liu)

Liu had moved to Canada in 2021 on a visitor visa so his eight-year-old autistic daughter could attend school. But after a B.C. school wasn’t able to support her, he needed a job to stay in Canada and find another school.

“I was extremely desperate,” Yan Liu told The Fifth Estate through a translator. “I felt like I might have been scammed, but I didn’t want to believe that because they promised me a real job.”

After the payments were made, though, Liu and other workers told The Fifth Estate they arrived on Prince Edward Island to discover the jobs they were promised didn’t exist. They say they were shuttled between companies, and when they did work, were offered substantially fewer hours than first promised.

This photo shows the Canadian Nectar Products farmhouse and orchard from the sky.
Canadian Nectar owns a large apple orchard in Alliston, P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Businesses that hire foreign workers are supposed to provide a fair wage and help cover workers’ travel and housing. 

But one worker, originally from India, said he and his family were expected to live in a windowless structure.

Another worker, whose identity The Fifth Estate is also protecting for fear of retribution against themselves or others in their community, said they resorted to using a local food bank and collecting bottles for deposits just to have enough money for food and rent. 

“They tricked me,” the worker said through an interpreter. “There was no job.”

A common owner

According to the CBSA search warrant application, which CBC P.E.I. went to court to obtain, there was a common link between the companies involved. 

Canadian Nectar president Kamalpreet Khaira also owns CWC Immigration Solutions, the immigration consultancy that Yan Liu alleged charged him large sums for his work permit. 

The CBSA alleged Khaira runs multiple companies to access additional temporary foreign workers, and had his staff provide “fraudulent documentation to support work that did not actually take place,” the search warrant application said.

The CBSA also alleged the businesses were “generating false pay stubs in exchange for cash from foreign nationals.” Investigators alleged workers were given fewer hours than promised and told they could get a pay stub for full-time hours if they paid the difference in cash.

Kamalpreet Khaira is seen speaking into a microphone outside at an orchard and in front of a sign that says P.E.I. and Fruits Canada.
Kamalpreet Khaira, owner of Canadian Nectar Products and CWC Immigration Solutions Inc., speaks at an event he held to promote the apple orchard in Alliston, P.E.I, in 2017. (Andy Walker)

None of the allegations in the search warrant application has been proven in court.

Some workers, like Liu, told The Fifth Estate they went ahead with the scheme because they believed they needed the pay stub as a record of employment, something they say they were told they needed to apply for permanent residency.

Khaira, who lives in Brampton, Ont., did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Fifth Estate, including through his businesses and his lawyers.

System ‘not working’

A workers rights advocate on the Island who helped a number of former Canadian Nectar employees says the issues he has heard over the years constitute a “perfect storm.” 

“It’s not uncommon for me to hear any one or a couple of these issues on a weekly basis … but it’s not often that they’re all this extreme,” said Ryan MacRae, a migrant worker program co-ordinator at the non-profit Cooper Institute in Charlottetown.

WATCH | Migrant worker advocate says he’s frustrated by repeat complaints: 

Migrant worker advocate says he’s frustrated by government oversight

Ryan MacRae, a migrant worker program co-ordinator at the non-profit Cooper Institute in Charlottetown, helped foreign workers complain of abuse by a network of P.E.I. farm companies. MacRae told The Fifth Estate that he became frustrated by the repeat complaints without sanctions.

He said he feels the federal government doesn’t punish companies with documented cases of worker complaints severely enough, so believes there are often repeat offenders. 

“The employer, I think that’s the easy culprit here, but what we really should be focusing on is the government,” said MacRae. “The government is allowing these things to happen.”

He said a lack of regulations around immigration consultants and what they can promise and charge migrant workers is also an issue that needs to be addressed.

The sign for Cooper Institute is shown on a door, with two staff members sitting in the background out of focus.
The Cooper Institute is a social justice advocacy non-profit based in Charlottetown. Several of its staff worked with foreign workers to file for open work permits in order to change jobs. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

He said that in Canada, temporary foreign workers are not supposed to pay for their work permits. Instead, the company that hires them must apply to the federal government for a screening, called a Labour Market Impact Assessment, and pay a $1,000 application fee.

“It’s incredibly frustrating because we have these mechanisms in place for the government to protect people, but they’re just not working, they’re not working at all,” MacRae said. 

‘Faith is gone’

Rod Steenbruggen, who managed the orchard for Khaira in 2017 and 2018, told The Fifth Estate he complained several times to federal officials about foreign workers showing up at the farm expecting a job. He said the workers specifically told him they had paid someone for a job.

“[It] ballooned to a point that we had 16 or 17 people that we couldn’t even communicate with, didn’t know their names, didn’t know where they were staying, nor did we know who was paying them,” Steenbruggen told The Fifth Estate.

An RV and some farm equipment sits on the Canadian Nectar Farm in Alliston, P.E.I. in July 2023.
The Canada Border Services Agency, which raided several locations in P.E.I. in June 2022, alleges in a search warrant application that Canadian Nectar Products was working with other Island businesses and an immigration firm to defraud foreign workers and the Canadian government. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Steenbruggen said he approached the company about his concerns, but alleges Khaira told him: “‘I’m not doing anything illegal…. It’s not my fault that laws in Canada are so lax.'”

WATCH | Former farm manager says he raised concerns repeatedly: 

Former farm manager says he raised concerns repeatedly

Rod Steenbruggen, a former manager of Canadian Nectar, told The Fifth Estate he complained to farm owners and the federal government about foreign workers arriving at the farm without his knowledge.

Steenbruggen said his relationship with Canadian Nectar soured after he complained to management, and that the company fired him shortly after he spoke to federal authorities. 

“If you have 10 people show up and they all paid $50,000, that’s a hell of a lot more money than growing apples, wouldn’t you say?” 

Temporarily suspended from immigration consulting

Steenbruggen, MacRae and others have questioned why the federal government has not sanctioned Nectar and its affiliated companies or restricted their access to temporary foreign workers, even if the CBSA investigation is ongoing.

Employment and Social Development Canada has publicly disclosed list of companies that have failed to comply with federal immigration rules, but Canadian Nectar and its affiliates are not listed on it.

The Fifth Estate reached out to the department to ask why it has not imposed a financial penalty or banned the company from hiring any more temporary foreign workers.  

The department declined to comment, citing privacy.

Rod Steenbruggen is shown walking near an apple orchard in January 2024.
Rod Steenbruggen briefly worked as the manager of the Canadian Nectar orchard in Alliston, P.E.I. He says he complained to Kamalpreet Khaira and federal government staff about his concerns regarding temporary foreign workers. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

As a result of the 2022 CBSA investigation and raid, Khaira’s immigration consultant licence is temporarily suspended. He is not allowed to work for CWC Immigration Solutions in any capacity. No criminal charges have been laid.

The Fifth Estate spoke with two Charlottetown-based foreign worker advocates, including MacRae, who helped the 31 foreign workers file their allegations of abuse against Canadian Nectar and affiliated companies.

They confirmed that, on the basis of their documented abuse allegations, all 31 received federal open work permits that allowed them to legally work and live anywhere in Canada.

Yan Liu and his daughter, Emma, Facetime with his wife in China.
Liu and his daughter, Emma, Facetime with his wife in China. He hopes that now that his status in Canada is stable, he can bring the family together. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Among them is Liu, who is building a life in Toronto with his daughter.

Liu said he has been in touch with CBSA, but the federal agency has not scheduled an interview with him or requested copies of his hidden camera recordings.

The CBSA declined to comment on why Liu has not been interviewed at this time, citing privacy regarding criminal investigations.

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