An Iranian couple has gone public about how a B.C. business charged the pair $15,000 to come to Canada — a violation of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program rules — for jobs that turned out to be non-existent.
“We came for job. But they didn't give us,” said Sareh Aminian, who said her husband was only given one day’s paid work. “It makes me crazy.”
The couple entered Canada in March 2013, under contracts with Parvaz Film Corporation originally signed in 2011 and 2012.
Company owner Sherry Soltani and her husband, Majid Mahichi, run a photo studio in Maple Ridge, B.C. They also broadcast cable TV shows in Farsi for the local Persian community.
“After you get this situation, you pay $15,000 and after that … where is my money? Where is my job? I always ask — when can I start my job?” said Aminian’s husband, Payam Bakht.
“I am telling you, I got very, very bad depression. We don't have anybody here. No relative here, no friends here.”
Aminian and Bakht also said that once they were in Canada, Parvaz Film told them that if they paid an additional $1,200 per month to the company in cash, it would remit false payroll taxes to government, so the couple could pretend Bakht was working — and stay in Canada.
“We didn't have job, we had to pay tax, and if we didn't pay tax we had to leave Canada,” said Aminian. “We have to pay $1,200 each month, without any work and without any salary.”
Instead of paying the "tax" to the employer, they cut off all contact and went to an immigration lawyer, who filed a successful refugee claim on their behalf, based partly on evidence from the money-for-jobs scheme.
“Once they got here they were surprised to find not only is there no work for them to do — no salary — but they had to pay the employer even more in order to keep their worker status,” said lawyer Mojdeh Shahriari. “It’s like extortion, really.”
Shahriari alleges the company defrauded the government by giving false information in order to get a positive Labour Market Opinion (permission to hire foreign workers).
“This is a criminal allegation. It remains to be proved. However, it warrants a criminal investigation,” said Shahriari.
Shahriari was worried other workers would be exploited. She reported the case with substantial documentation to the criminal investigations branch of the Canada Border Services Agency, nine months ago.
She can’t understand why the company hasn’t faced any consequences.
“I have been shocked in my practice with a lot of things — but this is extremely shocking to me and disturbing … because the proof was so clearly provided to [CBSA],” she said.
Parvaz Film was advertising jobs for Farsi-speaking applicants as recently as last month, which suggests the company still has permission to hire foreign workers.
“The company who did that abuse got away with it. It actually makes my blood boil when I see that people who are established here - who are citizens here - take advantage of vulnerable people and then somebody finds out, reports it and nothing happens,” Shahriari said.
Bakht and his wife are Iranian actors who have worked abroad for some time. They thought they had a promising future in Canada when Soltani offered Bakht a two-year contract, for $70,000 a year, to make a feature film in a Vancouver suburb.
“We came here for finding new opportunities and new job and live in Canada. Because they told us we can apply for permanent residency,” said Aminian. She said the company also promised her an open work visa, so she could get a job anywhere, which did not materialize.
“They paid money to get the work visa not knowing that this is actually illegal — that no employer should charge potential employees for getting them a Labour Market Opinion or a work visa,” said Shahriari.
Bakht said that once he and his wife were in B.C., they soon ran out of money and had no way to earn more.
“The government doesn't give you any permission to do anything. It's a very bad situation.”
He said they were terrified of being deported to Iran. They said the state, which oppresses outspoken actors, would punish them for doing popular Persian TV shows out of Malaysia, where they had been before coming to B.C.
“Because we worked two years for private channels, we couldn't come back to Iran. We are in danger to put us in a prison,” said Bakht.
Because they now have refugee status, the couple can stay in Canada. They have a new baby and Bakht said he is having a hard time finding work. They are on social assistance and feel very disillusioned.
“My heart wants that no one gets to Canada this way,” said Bakht.
Federal government insiders with intimate knowledge of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program told Go Public they often hear about schemes where foreign workers pay big money just to get to Canada and are then exploited.
“I have heard of dozens of cases like this, from companies directly or consultants,” said one senior government staffer. “The bottom line is there has simply been no appetite [to prosecute the companies].
“Not every case is going to get dealt with. Somebody is going to have to draw a line to decide how serious a case is before you are going to designate resources," said a retired senior civil servant who still has close ties to the program.
Sources also said they're not surprised if the alleged company wrongdoing in this case wasn't reported to Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s department, which approves the foreign worker permits for companies.
They said Canada Border Services Agency investigators have little incentive to talk to Kenney's department, and both are restricted on what can be shared.
“I remember during [Temporary Foreign Worker Program] training saying, 'No, no, no, if there's no [information sharing] agreement you can't talk to them,’ and the TFW program officers saying, "Then how the hell are we supposed to do our job?” said the current senior staffer.
“There are memorandums of understanding between departments that limit what can be shared and how. They define what kind of data what can be shared, plus by whom and to whom,” said the retired civil servant.
When asked why CBSA would not pursue the alleged fraud in this case, he said, “There is no excuse for that. That's lunacy. That speaks to a not very well functioning office. Somebody dropped the ball.”
This is the second case reported by Go Public where federal departments knew about serious allegations, but the company involved wasn't penalized.
An Israeli mall kiosk worker was deemed a victim of human trafficking by immigration officials in B.C., but the company continued to use foreign workers. Israeli whistleblower Anton Soloviov said he still hasn't been contacted by federal investigators.
Go Public tried several times to ask Kenney about this, in Ottawa, but he wouldn’t stop to talk. His office said he was too busy.
It later sent a statement, saying enforcement is improving.
“Under the previous Liberal government, no inspections were done to ensure that employers were following the rules," said Kenney's office. "In 2007, our government began conducting investigations and has increased the numbers of investigations done each year significantly since then."
It referred questions about information sharing from CBSA to that department.
"When the CBSA becomes aware of cases that involve Criminal Code violations, such as fraud or extortion of temporary foreign workers, the CBSA will refer to the appropriate police agency," read a statement from the CBSA.
"Information sharing between the CBSA and its federal, provincial and international partners is a regular part of doing business and is conducted as authorized by law and in accordance with stringent privacy policies."
Go Public asked both departments if any agency is now investigating this case, but both refused to say.
The owner of Parvaz Film said she couldn’t talk about this until she consulted a lawyer. Her husband later emailed to say the company has no comment.
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On mobile? Click here to read the statement from Jason Kenney's office