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P.E.I. government orders apple orchard firm to pay thousands to foreign workers

The Canadian Nectar Products office at the Down East Mall in Montague was closed and dark at 10:45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning this past August. Company information for Fruits Canada and Atlantic Canada Nurseries was also listed on the office door. (Carolyn Ryan/CBC)

The Canadian Nectar Products office at the Down East Mall in Montague was closed and dark at 10:45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning this past August. Company information for Fruits Canada and Atlantic Canada Nurseries was also listed on the office door.

Photo: (Carolyn Ryan/CBC)

RCI

Chief labour standards officer calls Canadian Nectar Products actions ‘cash for pay’

P.E.I.'s Employment Standards Branch has ordered an apple orchard company in Kings County to pay thousands of dollars to four foreign workers who refused to participate in what the province's chief labour standards officer called a cash for pay scheme.

Canadian Nectar Products has been ordered to pay the former employees sums ranging from about $5,000 to nearly $15,000 for unpaid wages. A related company, Fruits Canada, was ordered to pay one former employee $233 for unpaid wages.

The companies, and others linked to them, are the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Canada Border Services Agency related to similar allegations, in which workers claim their employer demanded cash payments in exchange for paycheques of lesser value than the cash that was remitted.

The workers needed the paycheques to prove they were legally in Canada for the purposes of building a case for gaining permanent resident status.

Pay statements provided by the workers show their paycheques indicated they'd worked 40 hours a week, as their contracts had specified, even in weeks where there was insufficient work.

CBSA investigators raided the offices of Canadian Nectar Products and three other eastern P.E.I. farm businesses in June, seizing documents, computers and other potential evidence.

When it applied for a search warrant, CBSA officials cited a five-year period of alleged infractions by Canadian Nectar Products, stretching from Feb. 28, 2017, to the date of the court application, June 21 of this year. 

Kamalpreet Khaira at a November 2017 event marking the first harvest for Canadian Nectar Products, with the agriculture and fisheries minister at the time, Alan McIsaac, right. (Andy Walker/Island Farmer)

Kamalpreet Khaira at a November 2017 event marking the first harvest for Canadian Nectar Products, with the agriculture and fisheries minister at the time, Alan McIsaac, right. (Andy Walker/Island Farmer)

Photo: (Andy Walker/Island Farmer)

The employer allegedly withheld pay from workers who refused to cooperate, according to the P.E.I. Employment Standards Branch's findings.

The cash-for-pay scheme meant each Complainant was effectively paying [the employer] to work, Robert Yeo, chief labour standards officer for the province, wrote in his August 2022 decision on Canadian Nectar Products. "Each Complainant returned thousands of dollars in pay.

The [employer] went one step further, however, and made payment of wages for hours worked … conditional on pay continuing to be returned.

Kamalpreet Khaira, who is listed as one of the owners of Canadian Nectar Products and Fruits Canada, could not be reached for comment.

Former Ontario Liberal MP Sheila Copps was an early booster of Canadian Nectar Products when the company began planting apple orchards on P.E.I. in 2014. In an email to CBC News last week, Copps said she has not been involved with the company for several years.

Former Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal was once listed as a part owner of Canadian Nectar Products. He has said he has not been involved with the company since 2017.

The Employment Standards Branch reviewed text messages and emails between workers and company managers, as well as translations of sworn statements by the foreign workers themselves.

Workers are shown pruning trees at Canadian Nectar Products in 2018. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Workers are shown pruning trees at Canadian Nectar Products in 2018.

Photo:  (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

One text exchange in March between a worker and a supervisor alluded to the employee's absence, and the supervisor's adamant denial that any inappropriate action was taking place with regard to paycheques.

Supervisor: Have you taken leave without informing? Did you take leave?

Worker:  I won't go to work from [sic] tomorrow because [name of another supervisor] not allow me go to work if I don't take the cheques. Thank you! And now I feel not safe if I go to work. I am sorry.

Supervisor: This is total lie i was also there he didn't say anything there. Two days was holiday for everybody

Worker: Now you tell lie, [name of supervisor]. So please don't message me again.

One worker complained of having to pay $600 in cash to receive a paycheque for $499.70, the Employment Standards Branch documents indicate. On another occasion the worker complained of paying about $4,500 to receive four paycheques worth $3,552.76 in total.

The workers say they were told they had to pay the company back for their airfare to Canada. That's a violation of the rules for bringing temporary workers to Canada.

One worker complained they stopped getting paycheques when they could no longer pay. Relatives back home overseas had to send them money merely to survive.

The Employment Standards Branch also ruled that two workers were owed overtime for hours worked in October and November of 2021, during peak season in the orchard.

 I felt [it was] very unfair. I was extremely stressed working there, said one foreign worker, according to the translation of their sworn statement.

Other emails obtained by CBC News show the company using a professional and compassionate tone with workers who are new to Canada — while also referring to unclaimed paycheques. Here is one of them: 

Dear [name of worker],

     Your supervisor unfortunately does not have any leave letter from you. Since you are sick please send a doctor's note … work in your absence should be allocated to other workers to avoid any lapse in our busy farm operations. We are again reminding you to collect your salary cheques. You are welcome to book an appointment with an accounts executive to discuss your concern about difference in the calculations of your pays … 

Before handing down its decision, the Employment Standards Branch invited Canadian Nectar Products to respond to the allegations, and provided copies of the texts and other evidence. The province received no response, according to the written decision.

The company did respond to the province's request for payroll records. A company representative phoned the province in July, according to the province, to say they no longer had the payroll records; the documents had been seized in June by the Canada Border Services Agency.

The province issued its orders regardless.

It is somewhat surprising that copies of these same payroll records were not kept, said Yeo, the chief labour standards officer, in his written decision.

Canadian Nectar Products had 10 days to file an appeal of the August 11 order by the Employment Standards Branch.

The P.E.I. Department of Economic Growth, Tourism and Culture declined comment on the matter, but says amounts owing can be enforced by the P.E.I. Supreme Court.

Brian Higgins (new window) · CBC News 

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