For 25-year-old Israeli Anton Soloviov, the dream of working in Canada turned into a nightmare. Brought into the country as a temporary foreign worker seven months ago, he and others in the same situation allegedly worked without pay for their former employers, who are accused of using the threat of deportation to keep their employees in line.
Last fall, while still in Israel, Soloviov said he saw an online advertisement for work abroad that promised earnings of up to $5,000 a month. Though his best friend warned him it looked too good to be true, it was an opportunity Soloviov couldn’t pass up. He applied online, interviewed with Canadian business owner and former Israeli Dor Mordechai over the phone and flew into Vancouver in October 2013. Mordechai and his wife Anna Lepski hired Soloviov as a foreign worker for their company, 0860005 B.C. Ltd., which operates kiosks in British Columbia malls, both in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. Soloviov, 25, said he met two fellow workers, also Israelis, on the ferry to the island and worked with them at Nanaimo’s Woodgrove Centre, at kiosks selling the Pinook Massage device and cosmetics, among other products. Soloviov said Mordechai and Lepski arranged housing for him and his fellow workers in a sparsely furnished house in Nanaimo, charging them $450 per month each in rent.
At first things were OK. “The first few weeks were wonderful, they showed us around and took us to Service Canada to get our SIN numbers,” Soloviov recalled in an interview. Left with $300 after paying for his $1,900 airfare to Vancouver – a fee that is supposed to be paid by the employer of a temporary foreign worker – Soloviov managed to pay for food for the first month. But payday offered the first indication, he said, that the work was far from kosher.
“Instead of paying us for a month’s work, our supervisor, Azi Qizel, also an Israeli, announced that we were working on commission so, after rent deductions and paying him $500 for our work permits, we didn’t actually earn anything,” Soloviov claimed. When he objected, Soloviov alleges that Qizel informed him that if he didn’t want to work, his work permit could be canceled and he would be deported by Immigration Canada.
By December 2013, Soloviov said he had worked hundreds of hours and made a total of $300 after the fines for which he claimed he and his fellow workers were penalized. “I was fined for everything you can imagine,” he alleged. “Qizel would come up to the kiosk, see something missing and fine everyone who worked that day $100. If we were seen on our phones, we’d be fined. If we were caught talking to each other, we were fined $100.”
Over the course of those months, Soloviov said he did some research and contacted a lawyer. He said he approached his then employers and asked to be paid what he was owed, “or else I’d file a complaint with Employment Standards.” That’s when Soloviov said that he and his family were threatened, though he was less worried about himself than his family. “I’m ex-military, I can take care of myself. But the threat to my family was a blow. I was afraid for my mother, who lives with my baby sister. She didn’t do anything wrong.”
A few days before New Year’s, Soloviov went to the Nanaimo RCMP with his story, and then to the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter, since he had no money or accommodation. What’s more, he was unemployable, since his temporary foreign worker permit allowed him to work only for Mordechai’s company.
Today, thanks to the intervention of the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society, which helped Soloviov find an immigration lawyer, he now has an open work permit and has found employment at a fast-food outlet in Nanaimo. A friend has offered him a place to stay for the time being. But Soloviov’s future still feels uncertain.
“I want to stay on in Canada but I’m not going back to that mall because I know they’re still there,” he said, referring to his former employers. “My friend still gets approached by people asking where I am and I don’t want to have to look over my shoulder all the time.”
Immigration officials say that Soloviov fits in the category of a “victim of trafficking in persons.” He has filed a complaint against Mordechai and Lepski with Employment Standards and the RCMP are investigating the death-threat complaint against Qizel.
Some of Mordechai and Lepski’s mall kiosks are still operating today. The pair are now being formally investigated, according to the office of Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of employment. Since the case deals with potential human trafficking, it is being handled by the Ministry of Public Safety.
Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Rémi Larivière said the Government of Canada takes the issue of exploitation and mistreatment of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) very seriously and that improvements to the program took effect on Dec. 31, 2013. These include allowing Citizenship and Immigration and Employment and Social Development Canada officials to conduct inspections of employers who hire TFWs to ensure that they’re meeting the conditions of employment. Service Canada has also made some changes, launching a public tip line to encourage Canadians who have any complaints, to share them with the agency’s Integrity Services.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.