WINNIPEG Maple Leaf Foods has shut down its program to import workers from China after discovering that 61 employees at its Brandon pork plant paid $10,000 each to come to Canada under a deal arranged by the partner of a Maple Leaf executive.
Maple Leaf said it had no knowledge of the payments, and although no criminal wrongdoing is alleged, they launched an investigation immediately after learning that many workers are struggling to pay debts related to the fee, which is equivalent to about four times the average annual salary in China.
The company said it hired a Canadian immigration consultant to find workers on its behalf. Although the company refused to identify the consultant, The Globe and Mail has learned that it is Sophia Cummings Enterprises, based in Vancouver.
Maple Leaf confirmed that a company executive is in a relationship with Ms. Cummings but refused to give the name.
Linda Kuhn, a spokeswoman for Maple Leaf, said there was full disclosure of that relationship and it played no role in awarding the contract.
Ms. Cummings is travelling abroad and could not be reached for comment.
The company planned to bring in several hundred workers from China on temporary visas to staff its Brandon plant. The workers arrived in Brandon, a city of 40,000 250 kilometres west of Winnipeg, last spring. They were adjusting well to the community and earning good reviews at work, the company said. But in October, some of the workers asked to be moved out of the apartments arranged for them by Maple Leaf because they were too costly.
That is when it emerged that many of them were struggling under a weight of debt.
"The extent of the cost I'm sure has borne some burden on these people," Ms. Kuhn said.
Officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers union said the Chinese employees are reluctant to speak publicly for fear of repercussions against them and their families in China. But the union said it is concerned about the situation. The workers are paid a starting salary of about $15 an hour for various kinds of work in the plant. Although they are in Canada on temporary visas, some may eventually be able to stay in Manitoba through the provincial nominee program.
Maple Leaf has recruited abroad for many years, particularly in Mexico and El Salvador, partly because of the widespread labour shortage in Western Canada. But Ms. Kuhn said they have never encountered this kind of payment arrangement before.
They stress that the payments are not illegal and were arranged in another country, but they are concerned that it happened without their knowledge or approval.
As a result, they have terminated their business relationship with Ms. Cummings.
The Department of Human Resources and Social Development delved into the case and interviewed several of the Chinese workers after being contacted last month by Maple Leaf.
"We're trying to get to the bottom of this as well," said George Rohulych, the department's manager of employment programs. "What we've been able to learn is that these workers had responded to ads in China from a company that offers its services to people wanting to secure international employment."
For the equivalent of about $10,000, payable in cash only, the workers received training in meat-cutting and some education in English as a second language.
Although it seems a great deal of money, there is nothing the department can do about this type of arrangement, Mr. Rohulych said.
"All that we do is provide a labour-market opinion to the employer that enables them to recruit outside of Canada," he said. "I have no jurisdiction if workers use a third party or if an employer uses a third party."
Initially, he was concerned that the workers had paid for their passage to Canada, which is illegal under the terms of the temporary worker visa. But that proved not to be the case, he said. It is unclear where the money ended up.
Maple Leaf has government approval to bring in 182 more foreign workers this year, but with their China plans on hold, it's not known where those workers will come from.
"I know they're anxious to bring more workers in because they have a need at the facility," Mr. Rohulych said.
Ms. Kuhn said Maple Leaf is considering making some form of restitution to the 61 workers, but she could not say how much money they might receive.