Temporary foreign workers tell court of years of employer abuse

Joven Ednalaguim, forced to work for $3.73 an hour

THE BOSS CHEATED THEM, BUT THEY WERE HAPPY HE DID. Therefore, Hector Mantolino should not go to jail.

That was the pitch Mantonlino’s lawyer made to a court in Halifax January 25. It was an argument beneath contempt. But not really surprising in the trial of a man who had nothing but contempt for the workers be preyed on.

Mantolino was in court to be sentenced. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to cheating 28 workers out of $500,000 in wages. Often paying them as little as $3.13 an hour. Finally, after six long years, he would be punished. He could get as much as two years in jail. His lawyers argued he should get none.

His lawyer told the judge workers were happy to let him cheat them. It was their way to repay him for giving them the opportunity to achieve the “Canadian dream”, he said. Whatever he was guilty of, they were too, he said.

This was just the last indignity the cheated and exploited workers had to bear because of Mantolino. Yet, even though he pleaded guilty, his hold on them remained strong.

Only twelve of the 28 he cheated filed victim statements with the court. Just four choose to read their statements into the record in open court. They cried as they read. None of them said they were happy to be part of Mantolino’s scheme.

Blaming the victims

Joven Ednalaguim moved from the Philippines to Halifax in 2009 to work in a building cleaning business Mantolino owned. He expected to make enough to even send money back home to help with his parents medical bills. When he got his first pay cheque that dream evaporated. He had been cheated.

His contract promised Joven, $10.60 an hour. He actually got roughly $3.13 an hour.

Joven was forced to work 20-hour days, seven days a week to make up the shortfall. He says he was so exhausted most days that he couldn’t stay awake to drive home. He claims that’s why he had two car accidents.

Joven says that he and his co-workers at the time had very few, if any, days off. Joven only got a day off after he became violently ill.

“I [was] almost dizzy that time and threw [up] some blood, and that’s the time I called him and said: ‘I need a day off,’ and I see the doctor,” he said.

Joven continued to work under these conditions for four years. In his victim impact statement to the court he wrote he accepted the situation because he “didn’t want to start a family feud.”

Eventually, Joven and 27 other Filipino workers blew the whistle on Hector Mantolino.

‘A trauma deeply engraved on my heart”

Rhodee Benigla, another one of the workers employed by Mantolino, told the court that he was afraid to speak up for fear of being sent back to the Philippines. “Those were the days that my self-esteem was at the very lowest part of my life,” added Rhodee. “Being deprived of a proper salary for almost two years is a trauma deeply engraved on my heart.”

Raymond Basilio explained that even though he put in long hours of work, he had no money to send to his relatives in the Philippines. Additionally, Mantolino forced him to garden and clear snow for him, and took Basilio’s tax refund.

“I had no choice but to follow his orders,” added Basilio. “I lost my pride and self-respect doing all his orders and errands.”

Lavish lifestyle

Joan Borromeo added, “it’s very difficult and painful for us. Behind our financial struggles, Hector [was] enjoying his luxurious life, party, vacation and gambling in casino until now.”

Liza Alcantara said that she received just $500 for 134 hours of work—$3.73 an hour. “How can I save? And what better life I can give to my children?” she told the court.

Prison sentence?

Crown prosecutor Timothy McLaughlin told the court the serious worker abuse Mantolino admits to deserves a two-year prison sentence. “Temporary foreign workers are part of Canada’s economic landscape. When the program is compromised by employers who lie, the effects are far reaching,” he said.

The prosecutor also believes the case should have a broader impact on how temporary foreign workers are treated across Canada. “This is an offence that needs to be considered across the country. We have a large number of temporary foreign workers and they need to be afforded certain protections,” McLaughlin stated.

A Canada-wide problem

Mantolino’s abuse of vulnerable temporary foreign workers is hardly unique. In fact, the mistreatment of foreign workers by unscrupulous employers is a major issue everywhere in Canada.

Last year, the released a report revealing that numerous foreign workers’ agencies operate across British Columbia and charge thousands of dollars to arrange jobs for new arrivals.

In BC, a 2018 Migrant Workers Centre report noted that many temporary foreign workers had no access to legal support or advice in case they wanted to challenge instances of mistreatment.

In Edmonton, ACT Alberta, which campaigns against human trafficking, noted: “Many popular businesses in this city are reaping immense profits off the backs of labour trafficking victims.”

In July 2017, temporary foreign workers and their supporters rallied in Montreal to protest terrible working conditions.

Temporary workers who come here are dependent upon their employer for their work visa. If they lose their job, they must leave the country. The result is often very unfair, even cruel.

For example, in the aftermath of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, it took extraordinary intervention to prevent the deportation of temporary foreign workers whose employers’ offices and factories had been burned out.

Trade unions like the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers ) and CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) have taken up these issues with campaigns to defend temporary foreign workers’ rights.

The UFCW for example, runs a “Justice and dignity for temporary foreign workers” campaign. The union also has nine migrant workers support centres across the country.

“For governments to thrust current immigration policy towards a model that treats workers as mere commodities and prohibits landed residency and citizenship is unacceptable, inhumane, and un-Canadian,” writes the UFCW.

How much the Nova Scotia courts see it that way depends on whether or not they sentence Hector Mantolino to jail on March 1.

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