Quebec seniors home investigated for alleged mistreatment of workers from Africa

Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet speaks during a news conference in Montreal, Sunday, March, 21, 2021. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s labour minister says an investigation is underway into allegations that a private seniors residence in Lévis, Que., paid temporary workers from Africa just $70 a week to work as orderlies over several months while promising work permits.

The allegations against Villa mon Domaine were reported in an investigation published in Le Devoir on Thursday, prompting Labour Minister Jean Boulet to ask the workers’ health and safety board to investigate.

Christine Orain of Le Tremplin, a community organization that works with immigrants in the city just south of Quebec City, said Friday that an initial complaint came in January 2021 when one employee came to her organization to say the residence was denying access to his pay stub, and it was discovered workers were not receiving their COVID-19 bonuses.

Afterwards, others came forward including some people who didn’t have valid work permits and were allegedly told they would be helped in getting one while “volunteering” at the residence in exchange for prepaid credit cards of between $50 and $70 per week, a situation that lasted for up to 11 months in some cases.

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They were working as “volunteers” for 35 hours a week while awaiting their permits and living at the residence, Orain said. Some of them reported receiving allegedly threatening texts or emails from management about their status and employment.

“After we had a second person, a third and when we got to six from the same residence, obviously we had a problem,” Orain said. “We took down all the information and referred them to a variety of groups that protect workers.”

She said they contacted workers’ health and safety, the provincial human rights commission, Service Canada, the Quebec Immigration Department and the local health authority, but the matter wasn’t resolved.

Orain said they finally got in touch with the Immigrant Workers Centre based in Montreal, which helped with permits. Some of the workers had been recruited abroad with permits while others were approached in Quebec after arriving as visitors. “It was a long procedure, but finally they got open work permits and were able to find different employment,” Orain said.

Click to play video: '‘Very frustrated’; temporary foreign worker stuck in limbo' ‘Very frustrated’; temporary foreign worker stuck in limbo
‘Very frustrated’; temporary foreign worker stuck in limbo – Jan 8, 2022

Management at Villa mon Domaine did not return phone calls seeking comment on Friday. Speaking to Le Devoir and Radio-Canada separately this week, the owners of the residence denied the allegations.

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Boulet said in a statement Friday he was “appalled” by the report, noting that temporary foreign workers have the same rights as Quebec workers and deserve to be treated with dignity.

Three inspectors visited the care home on Thursday and will also meet with the workers and community organizations. Boulet said if the allegations are founded, other probes could follow.

Orain called the situation exceptional. “These people were coming from African countries, they didn’t know, they thought, ‘This is how it works in Canada,’ and above all, they wanted to stay here,” she said.

“I think for many of them, they were happy to see that someone finally heard them, that someone recognizes what they were experiencing wasn’t acceptable and wasn’t normal.”

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