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Migrant workers allege poor working conditions at Aquilini-owned blueberry farm

Migrant workers share abuse allegations after working on Aquilini farm
WATCH: After the Aquilini Group was recently ordered to pay back wages and vacation pay to temporary foreign workers employed on their blueberry farm last summer, horror stories are emerging from the migrant workers hired by one of Canada's richest families. Aaron McArthur reports.

Six women from Guatemala are speaking out about their experience living and working at the Golden Eagle blueberry farm in Pitt Meadows.

The women complained about overcrowded housing, sleeping in rooms with three or four other people and inadequate facilities.

At work, the conditions were equally as poor, they allege.

According to several women, the hours were long with their access to water in the hot sun restricted by managers until they met their picking quota.

READ MORE: Calls for reform after Ontario migrant workers claim they worked in terrible conditions

Mirsa Martinez, speaking through a translator, complained of having to work in the cold packing room without proper clothing.

“My shifts were 10 hours long and I was working in temperatures [of] four degrees,” Martinez said.

The six women are some of of hundreds of temporary foreign workers (TFW) brought to Canada by Golden Eagle Farms, a company owned by the Aquilini group, which also owns the Vancouver Canucks.

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READ MORE: ‘An invisible class’: former Filipino temporary foreign worker shares story of employment fraud

Earlier this month, B.C.’s Employment Standards Branch ruled the Aquilinis had misrepresented the contracts of 174 workers, ordering the Aquilinis to pay $133,000 in back wages, vacation pay and overtime.

WATCH: (Aired Feb. 1, 2019) Temporary foreign workers cheated out of pay, benefits

Temporary foreign workers cheated out of pay, benefits
Temporary foreign workers cheated out of pay, benefits

In a statement, former Vancouver police chief and current Aquilini executive Jim Chiu, said said it was only just hearing about many of the allegations Tuesday.

“This is the first we have heard of many of these claims, and we intend to investigate them fully,” wrote Chiu.

“Having said that, many of the allegations are extreme, unfounded and false; the claim that water was withheld is particularly egregious.”

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Chiu said foreign workers’ housing is checked annually by a provincially-certified inspector, and that it has previously employed thousands of TFWs, many who have returned seasonally.

READ MORE: Many temporary foreign workers still paying thousands of dollars to work in B.C.: report

“The initial complaints about wages were lodged only after Guatemalan workers were told they had to return home,” said Chiu.

“In a mediation process, an advocate told Golden Eagle that the complaints would be dropped if Golden Eagle paid the advocate $100,000 and the group of women $225,000. Golden Eagle considered this extortive and refused to pay.”

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Chiu also produced a letter of support for the farm signed by 60 former female workers in Guatemala.

WATCH: Okanagan orchardists dealing with foreign workers shortage

Okanagan orchardists dealing with foreign workers shortage
Okanagan orchardists dealing with foreign workers shortage

The company’s response stood in stark contrast to how the workers say they were treated.

“These women have shown tremendous courage to come forward with their complaint,” said David Fairey with the B.C. Employment Standards Coalition.

“They knew full well they likely wouldn’t be hired back by this company. They need this job. In some cases they paid recruiters thousands of dollars just to be hired.”

The six women are all still in Canada on open Visas, employed outside the agricultural centre. One woman, fighting back tears, said they came to Canada to work hard and make a better life for their families and they deserved to have been treated with respect.