by Larry Pynn/Special to the Langley Advance
Looking back, Omar Figueroa Ramirez figures he had it pretty good: a hotel job in the Mexican resort town of Huatulco on the Pacific coast, leisure time on warm tropical beaches, and the closeness of his family, friends and a girlfriend.
He gave it all up for the chance of a better life as a foreign worker on a Langley blueberry farm, of sending money to help support his family and of saving to build his own dream home in Huatulco. Or so he thought.
“I was hoping for a good work experience in Canada,” the 24-year-old recalls in an interview with The Vancouver Sun. “In Mexico, the Mexican people, we think that Canada is the best place in the world. But everything changed. My dream became a nightmare.”
With legal help from the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association, Ramirez has lodged an official complaint with the B.C. Employment Standards Branch demanding that his ex-employer, farmer owner Randhir Singh Pandher, pay almost $20,000 in outstanding wages, overtime and vacation pay.
Pandher, a resident of New Westminster, refused to be interviewed.
He did issue a written statement: “The first we have heard of any complaints was when The Vancouver Sun contacted us. Having briefly reviewed the complaint, we disagree with the version of events presented. We will present our side of the story during the complaint process. We feel partaking in a public dispute in the media is not appropriate; thus, we will not be commenting further.
Ramirez worked alone on a 16-hectare property on 224th Street, Pandher Farms, with no access to public transit and with limited understanding of English and his rights as a foreign worker.
He “lacked personal freedom,” endured long shifts without overtime pay, worked six or seven days a week, often had hotdogs for meals, had his movements monitored by video cameras (including one located right outside his room), and was almost always paid in cash without pay stubs, according to his complaint to the Employment Standards Branch dated Dec. 15.
After almost 14 months, he “escaped Pandher Farms” last Oct. 28, the complaint reads.
Cinnamon and Erik Dagsvik, a couple who rented a $1,500-a-month farm house on the same blueberry property, and others offered Ramirez assistance in leaving the farm and pressing his formal complaint.
Ramirez is one among thousands of Mexican farm labourers who come to Canada every year in hopes of a better financial future.
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, there were 15,817 seasonal Mexican farm workers in the country in 2010 compared with 19,946 in 2014. In B.C. alone, the numbers increased from 2,986 to 4,521 in the same five-year period.
The Sun interviewed Ramirez in the Dagsviks’ rental home shortly before the couple vacated the property. He appeared extremely nervous, repeatedly looking out the windows.
“He’s having a rough time with this,” confirmed Cinnamon Dagsvik, a communications manager with HSBC.
After the interview, Ramirez said he attended a counselling appointment in Vancouver to help him deal with the trauma of his experiences in Canada.
“This is painful for me, a bad experience,” he said. “It will take a long time to forget about it.”
Ramirez told The Sun he met Pandher in November 2013 at Secrets Resort in Huatulco where he worked carrying luggage to rooms and catering to guests’ needs. Three days before Pandher’s departure, the couple invited him to work on their Langley farm — an offer he accepted, he said.
Ramirez had seen many beautiful images of Vancouver, but would experience none of them upon his arrival. Picked up at Vancouver International Airport on Aug. 17, 2014, he went straight to the Pandher farm to receive his work orders.
According to his official complaint, jobs included tending to the blueberry plants and harvesting the berries, planting and caring for greenhouse crops, cleaning the barn and horse stalls, collecting rocks from fields, general housekeeping duties, and handling bee hives.
Cinnamon Dagsvik said she and her husband, the owner of an auto repair shop, befriended Ramirez because he was alone working on the farm. Over time, he frequently ate with them and came to be treated like a son.
Omar worked such long hours the Dagsviks became concerned about his health. “There were days when Omar was working until late in the night, after dark, when he had started at dawn,” she said.
Ramirez’ 24-month temporary foreign worker contract provided for pay of $10.50 an hour, a 40-hour work week, time-and-a-half pay beyond that, 60 minutes of breaks a day, two days off a week, and two weeks’ vacation — but no sick days.
The complaint alleges that while working at the farm from Aug., 17, 2014 to Oct. 28, 2015 Ramirez received “wages far below his entitled compensation” and no termination pay. Pandher also dissuaded him from talking with neighbours, the complaint alleges.
The entrance to his apartment was under security camera surveillance, his letter of complaint continues. “Mr. Ramirez counted four security cameras around his accommodation with one pointed directly at his front door.”
The complaint, signed by association legal advocate Jonathon Braun, alleges Ramirez “did not receive a proper diet, often receiving hotdogs for meals,” was “extremely isolated” and was told by Pandher that gas was too expensive to drive him to any nearby transit stops. He later received a bicycle.
“Mr. Ramirez was afraid to leave because he was scared about his status in Canada. Mr. Pandher had also pressured Mr. Ramirez into staying on the farm on several occasions.”
Ramirez seeks $19,945.25 in back pay.
In addition to a copy of his official complaint to the Employment Standards Branch, Ramirez provided The Sun with two recordings he secretly made of conversations with Pandher over his working conditions in April 2015.
Pandher is heard arguing that Ramirez doesn’t have much to do in winter, that he gives him work just to keep him occupied and that those hours should balanced out when he works longer days during the blueberry season.
“We have to make up that time during the season,” he said. “Winter, when there’s no work, you’re still getting paid. You’re getting the same amount of pay you’re getting in the summer. I just keep you busy to do something.”
Ramirez tells Pandher he feels “like a horse in the barn” due to his isolation and lack of time off.
Pandher replies that he worked hard when he arrived from India: “If you don’t want to do hard work, you won’t be successful.” He described first-generation immigrants as like birds building nests and getting to know their new world, and repeatedly interrupts Ramirez when he tries to explain his situation.
“Appreciate what you have,” he says.
Pandher also states Ramirez can be replaced by another foreign worker in two weeks and that he can return to Mexico to carry luggage for the rest of his life.
“If you are unhappy, I’m going to let you go. Mark my words … you’ll be sorry all your life, you’ll be sorry you made the decision to go back.”
Pandher is heard saying he personally likes Ramirez, but complains he is slow to learn farm work. “As a worker, I don’t like you that much,” he said. “You don’t know anything about farming. I have to teach you every step. You should appreciate … what you’re learning. I’m guiding you.”
After Ramirez finally left the farm, Pandher left numerous phone messages.
In one recording played back for The Sun, Pandher states: “Omar, this is Randy calling. I hope you return my call. I am going to call the police … and you should clarify why you took off like this without any notice and I hope you get my message and you have a good day.”
The police did become involved.
The letter of complaint to the Employment Standards Branch says: “His passport and other personal documents were seized by his employers and had to be recovered by RCMP officers after he escaped Pandher Farms.”
Lenin Cruz, a Spanish-speaking Langley RCMP constable, interviewed Ramirez, but the officer did not respond to The Sun’s request for an interview.
Today, Ramirez remains in a vulnerable position. He has no income and is supported by the Dagsviks and another friend and lives in a room in a home in Walnut Grove in north Langley.
After all Ramirez has experienced, you’d think that he’d be only too happy to leave Canada and return to his familiar Mexico, but that is not the case.
He is seeking a new work permit and an extended visa and would like to go to university to study administration, to make enough money to build that home, and to serve as an advocate for other foreign workers.
“My goal is to have a normal life, like other people of my age,” he says.
The Employment Standards Branch has scheduled the case for mediation Feb. 16 in Langley. Ramirez’s allegations remain unproven.
– Larry Pynn is a reporter with the Vancouver Sun.
For more from the Vancouver Sun, click HERE.