Edmonton businessman's employment of foreign worker under investigation following unrelated assault conviction

Edmonton businessman's employment of foreign worker under investigation following unrelated assault conviction

The case of an Edmonton businessman convicted of assaulting two teenage employees has prompted a federal investigation into his employment of a temporary foreign worker.

A federal Employment and Social Development Canada official confirmed Wednesday the department is investigating but said there will be no comment on the specifics of Kamaljit Bhalla's case until the investigation is complete.

Last month, Bhalla was convicted of assaulting the Edmonton teens on a worksite in Valleyview, Alta., 350 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.    

Bhalla was sentenced to 15 months of house arrest and banned from hiring minors.

The two young victims are Canadian. But CBC News has confirmed another company owned by Bhalla employs one temporary foreign worker — and that has raised red flags for labour advocates.

"If he's been banned because of his actions from employing minors, he should also be banned from employing other vulnerable workers," Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said in an interview last week.

On Wednesday, McGowan sent a letter to federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu calling for Bhalla to be barred from employing temporary foreign workers.

He requested that the worker be relocated to another work situation "in consultation with his needs and wishes."

Neither CBC nor the Alberta Federation of Labour have any indication the migrant worker is subject to misconduct by his employer.

No issues with staff, says Bhalla

But Bhalla confirmed a federal inspector interviewed the worker on the job site last week.

He said he has had "no issues" with other staff and provided statements to CBC, which he claimed are from permanent employees who state that he treats them well.

On Feb 8, Bhalla, who owns J&K Heating and J&K Electrical Services, pleaded guilty to four counts of assault and uttering threats of bodily injury against the two teens, then aged 15 and 17.

In exchange, the Crown dropped a string of sexual-related charges plus a charge of assault with a motor vehicle.

Court heard the assaults took place over three days last March on a remote worksite in Valleyview.

Despite pleading guilty, Bhalla maintains he is innocent. In a written statement, his wife said he has never abused her and is "the best man on earth."

Labour advocates said employers convicted of mistreating workers should not be allowed to hire foreign workers, and federal policy should be changed to introduce an automatic ban. Foreign workers would likely be reluctant to report an abusive boss because it could lead to their deportation, they said.

That's because the foreign worker's status to work in Canada, granted through a document known as the labour market impact assessment, is usually tied specifically to the employer.

"So that's a huge hammer that employers of temporary foreign workers have over the head of those workers, and the result is that temporary foreign workers often are willing to put up with abusive conditions," said McGowan.

Marco Luciano with Migrante Alberta said the federal government should offer foreign workers a path to permanent residency so they can enjoy the same rights as Canadian workers to leave an exploitative workplace.

"The way it's structured, the TFW program really puts the worker in a very precarious position," said Luciano.

According to the Alberta labour ministry, officers with Occupational Health and Safety conduct one or two inspections per day of worksites throughout the province, either randomly or in response to complaints.

In late 2016, OHS launched a focused inspection campaign targeting worksites where temporary foreign workers and other vulnerable workers were employed, wrote Alberta Labour spokesperson Lauren Welsh.

Increased on-site inspections

Officials with the federal department of Employment and Social Development Canada said 90 officers conduct inspections for the temporary foreign worker program across Canada. Inspections were introduced in 2014, and can be random or driven by complaints.

"The TFW program ‎is moving toward a more strategic compliance approach by increasing the number of on-site inspections to determine whether employers are in compliance with program requirements," wrote spokesperson Josh Bueckert, adding the focus is to protect "vulnerable workers."

Allegations of abuse are referred to the Canada Border Services Agency for possible investigation, as well as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to reconsider issuing future work permits.

Non-compliant employers of temporary foreign workers could face fines of up to $100,000 per violation, temporary or permanent bans from the program or the revocation of a previously issued labour market assessment.

They may also have their names published by the government on a public list.

The department operates a confidential tip line at 1-866-602-9448 to report situations of abuse.

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca
@andreahuncar