Tim Hortons OT allegations highlight flaws in temporary foreign workers program

B.C.'s Employment Standards Branch is investigating claims of seized overtime pay in Fernie donut shop

Fast-food outlets seem to be among the most enthusiastic users of Ottawa's problem-plagued Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

According to federal statistics, sales and service jobs far outpace other occupations in the program. The government approved more than 70,000 such positions last year, compared with just under 50,000 the year before, representing the largest year-over-year expansion among the program's nine categories.

It shouldn't be surprising that some employers will take advantage of the vulnerable newcomers who've left their homes overseas in search of work to support their families.

That's what allegedly happened to employees of a Tim Hortons outlet in the mountain town of Fernie, B.C., CBC News reports.

Two workers have come forward to claim their employer, Pierre Pelletier, cheated them out of overtime pay.

[ Related: Ottawa to change temporary foreign worker program ]

Heidi Kibanoff and her boyfriend, Richard Pepito, say Pierre Pelletier hired them and other Filipinos under the program. Their long work hours earned them overtime pay but they didn't get to keep it, the claim reads.

"He will issue a cheque to us and then what he wants is you cash the cheque, and after you cash the cheque you give the money back to him," Pepito said, according to CBC News.

Kibanoff said Pelletier would drive employees to the bank and wait while they cashed their cheques, CBC News reported. Then it's alleged he asked for a portion of the money.

Kibanoff complied because because she said she had an application under the Provincial Nominee Program, which fast tracks workers to permanent residency.

"All was I thinking was that I don't wanna go home, and he said it's to protect us and he's doing us a favour," she said.

Kibanoff said she left her job at Tim Hortons in June but is still stressed by her experience.

"It feels like even if I'm not working there anymore he can still try to threaten us through other people that he knows," she told CBC News.

Pepito also quit, and filed a complaint with the B.C. Employment Standards Branch.

CBC News contacted Pelletier and his wife, who professed ignorance of the allegations. However, the broadcaster said Tim Hortons' head office has launched an internal investigation into Pelletier.

"This matter has been brought to our attention," the company said in a statement. "We are treating it seriously and are currently conducting a review in full co-operation with B.C. Employment Standards."

Pelletier is also accused of charging employees processing fees for renewing their temporary work permits, which regulations require the employer to pay.

[ Related: Review of TFW Program rare climbdown for Harper government ]

Critics, especially labour unions, have cast a jaundiced eye at the Temporary Foreign Worker program for some time. While proponents tout it as a way of dealing with labour shortages and filling skills gaps, others see it as a way for businesses to keep down wages and benefits.

The service industry has come under particular scrutiny because of skepticism over claims that jobs as burger flippers and coffee dispensers are hard to fill. Fast-food operators say a lot of Canadians won't take these relatively low-wage jobs, especially in smaller communities.

But Karl Flecker, Canadian Labour Congress national director of anti-racism and human rights, told CBC News last year these temporary migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and dangerous working conditions.

"I think that most Canadians would be really disturbed to find out the kinds of working conditions people from so many countries are finding themselves in despite promises that they had heard from labour brokers and recruiters," said Flecker.

B.C. MLA Mabel Elmore, who has met with Kibanoff and Pepito, told CBC News their case is common among foreign workers.

"They are dependent on their employers," she said. "They often don't know their rights."

A B.C. Tim Hortons outlet figured in another complaint last year when four Mexican workers who worked at two Dawson Creek restaurants alleged their boss exploited them.

A Tim Hortons spokeswoman told CBC News many of the company's outlets couldn't operate without the program because franchisees in many locations can't find local residents to fill jobs.

Earlier this year, the Alberta Federation of Labour said fast-food chains and convenience stores were using a loophole in the program to keep labour costs down, CBC News reported.

The federation said documents it obtained under access-to-information legislation show half the temporary workers hired through a new fast-track process to bring in highly-skilled people ended up at fast-food outlets or convenience stores.

"It stretches the bounds of crediblity that companies like A&W, McDonalds would be hiring high-skilled workers," federation president Gil McGowan told CBC News. "They're using the temporary foreign workers program to keep wages low."

A hearing into the complaint by Kibanoff and Pepito is scheduled for February. Meanwhile, they say they've been harassed and intimidated, and friends who still work for Pelletier have asked them to withdraw their complaint.

"It feels like even if I'm not working there anymore he can still try to threaten us through other people that he knows," Kibanoff told CBC News.