By KATHY TOMLINSON
Saturday, April 6, 2019
VANCOUVER -- As his former assistant puts it, Kuldeep Bansal preyed upon the weak and "had them by the necks."
Mr. Bansal is a Canadian immigration consultant and international recruiter known for speeding around suburban Vancouver in a Lamborghini. Over the past decade, his agency collected up to $5-million a year from thousands of people who wanted a permanent life in Canada.
Eager recruits would borrow and scrape together as much as $15,000 apiece for a chance at one of the "guaranteed" jobs Mr.Bansal advertised for his employer clients.
In recent years, those clients included such major fast-food franchises as Subway and Fatburger, as well as Best Western hotels and Mac's convenience stores, among others.
Many recruits made initial payments to Mr. Bansal overseas in Dubai or India, in cash, which his former assistant said he brought back to Canada in suitcases. Some waited months for job offers that never materialized. Others got to Canada, but found the position they'd been promised didn't exist.
Mr. Bansal kept their money anyway, and, in some cases, went after them for more. It has made him a wealthy man.
Along with his family, he now has a golf course, a banquet hall and at least $15-million worth of real estate, according to public records.
"It makes you feel disgusted. Totally sick to the bottom of my belly what had happened and is still happening now," Mr.
Bansal's former assistant, Arjun Chaudhary, said. "I was a part of it, to be honest."
Mr. Bansal is among the more notorious of the thousands of job recruiters and consultants operating both in Canada and abroad. A four-month Globe and Mail investigation probed 45 such agents, who together have amassed scores of complaints, lawsuits and charges against them in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.
Along with employers and career colleges who paid them to help fill their job openings and classrooms, they collectively stand accused of exploiting at least 2,300 people in recent years, from countries such as India, the Philippines, Mexico and Guatemala, for their money, their labour or both.
The Globe conducted interviews with more than 80 people - foreign recruits, legal experts, migrant advocates and industry insiders - across Canada and abroad, and reviewed reams of lawsuits, formal complaints, investigative reports, government data and online ads.
It is illegal to make anyone pay for a job in Canada. Even so, recruits of the 45 agents identified paid as much as $40,000 each - a fortune for most - in exchange for the often false promises of a decent job or a place in a career college. Such promises also frequently included the assurance of longterm work permits that, in turn, would lead to the ultimate prize: permanent residency in Canada.
It can be a dirty business, dealing in human sweat and tears.
The Trudeau government is well aware, from being told repeatedly in consultations, that some recruits are ending up in dismal situations. Working under intolerable conditions for meager pay. Crammed into wretched temporary housing. Holding a useless career-college diploma and no work permit. Toiling away at odd jobs for cash under the table. Fearing and facing deportation.
All the while, many of them remain at the mercy of the immigration consultants and job recruiters - with one person or company often filling both those roles. The agents speak the migrant's native language, and often, as well, keep them on the hook by dangling another job offer or the promise of a visa, but only if they keep paying more fees.
A key problem, according to people who see this repeatedly, is that the work visas are temporary and most allow migrants to work only for one designated employer.
Because of that, those who are exploited can't just seek out another better job on their own.
"What we have is a class- and race-divided system, but there is not the political will to change that," said Fay Faraday, a Toronto legal expert in migration. "We - groups, lawyers, experts - have gone through numerous consultations with the current government, but it is not reflected in law or in policy change."
Ottawa, meanwhile, has done nothing to stop the proliferation of unscrupulous international recruiters who continue to entice and mislead people into thinking Canada is a country with open arms and opportunities aplenty. The number of licensed immigration consultants has doubled to more than 5,000 in the past five years.
They are subjected to a lack of government oversight, answering only to a national selfgoverning body.
According to several organizations advocating for migrants, exploitation is far more prevalent than has been reported, primarily because most victims are reluctant to go to the authorities for fear that they will be deported.
Enforcement is lacking. Federal figures obtained by The Globe show the number of leads that immigration authorities recorded about employment fraud by agents doubled in the past five years - from 153 to 301 - while, inexplicably, the number of investigations went down, to 27 from 38.
There were four convictions in 2018. In all but a handful of high-profile cases in recent years, offenders got fines and house arrest but no jail time, even though they initially faced serious charges.
Vancouver immigration lawyer Juliana Dalley, who wrote a submission to recent parliamentary hearings on human trafficking, says that exploitation by consultants and recruiters is entrenched and systemic.
"If the public were aware and really understood how the system operates to allow widespread exploitation and trafficking, they would be shocked," Ms. Dalley said.
There is no limit on the amount of money licensed consultants can charge. Online ads and videos show how some agents lure prospects by promising connections to Canadian employers and career colleges.
Recruits say the huge fees come later, ostensibly for "immigration services."
When pressed, consultants and recruiters will insist they aren't charging money in exchange for jobs. However, several recruits told The Globe they would never pay the large sums just for visa applications. They pay, instead, for the promise of good work and a future in Canada, which often do not materialize.
The Globe found hundreds of current online postings by immigration consultants for jobs with most of the best-known fast-food franchises, as well as at large corporate farms, and in the construction and trucking sectors. One consultant posted ads for counter attendants at a fast-food outlet, specifying that the jobs were "for international grads/students only."
Some of Mr. Bansal's former corporate clients are among those whose franchisees are still using immigration consultants to recruit workers. The Globe asked those companies why they were doing so, but only Fatburger responded.
The fast-food chain said that it has "partnered with several" licensed consultants over the years, but that it now uses them to recruit foreign workers from the ranks of international students already in Canada, as opposed to recruiting overseas.
Consultants also bill the employers and colleges seeking to recruit workers or students, which is legal. Mr. Bansal testified at a hearing over an employment-agency licence that Mac's paid his company $100,000 for recruitment services over a two-year period. When consultants recruit foreign students for career colleges, they get a cut of as much as 25 per cent of the tuition those students pay.
In Canada's largest provinces, next to nothing has been done to rein this industry in.
Mr. Bansal is still in business even though B.C. and Alberta have taken his employment-agency licences away. He has been charged with hiring foreign nationals illegally, has fought numerous court battles and is facing a class-action lawsuit from former recruits as well as a disciplinary hearing with the immigration-consultants' regulator.
He still has his immigration-consultant's licence, however, and his Surrey, B.C., businesses are advertising job openings.
Mr. Bansal declined The Globe's request for an interview.
International recruitment is big business, growing in lockstep with global migration.
Last year, the federal government granted 340,220 temporary work permits, most of which restricted the migrant to working for one employer. It also issued 358,190 study permits.
About a quarter of the work permits were issued to lesser-skilled workers under the temporary-foreign-worker program.
Approvals for such recruits have dwindled in the wake of a controversy five years ago, when some employers were found not to be hiring enough Canadians. The federal government then put stricter limits on the number of low-skilled workers that employers could bring in under the program.
Partly as a result of that crackdown, study permits - which allow people to work for any employer, for limited hours and only short-term - are the new hot seller for recruiters, who can then steer the students to low-skilled jobs with their employer clients. Last year, the federal government issued almost 40-per-cent more study permits than it did in 2015.
Major Canadian service-sector employers, corporate farms and career colleges use recruiters because they want migrants to fill jobs and classrooms, but they don't want to deal with the hassle and government paperwork involved. Recruitment agents have taken on so much of that function that several migrants who spoke to The Globe said most major businesses simply won't hire or sponsor them directly.
The main way for them to access jobs here is through recruiters.
Rajbir Kaur and her father, Piara Singh, both Indian nationals, came to Canada from the Italian city of Piacenza, where the family had made its home for years, after Mr. Singh lost his job as a labourer. They had relatives in Surrey who told them there were better opportunities here.
Ms. Kaur said her father went to Mr. Bansal for help. She said he charged her dad $15,000 in cash for a temporary permit to work on a farm, and told him it would lead to permanent residency in Canada. However, the job never materialized, she said, and when the work permit expired, her dad was back at square one.
"When you come from some other country, you don't know the rules," Ms.Kaur said. She estimates she and father have spent $60,000 on immigration consultants' fees.
Yet, another consultant sent Ms. Kaur to work at a restaurant, where, she said, the owner routinely made her give back some of her wages to cover payroll taxes among other things. She and other migrants told The Globe such a practice is commonplace because employers know that foreign recruits have few options.
"You go to the bank and deposit the money and get the money back in cash to give to the employer," Ms. Kaur said. She estimates that she was left with $50 for each full-day shift. "Many people on a work permit," she added, "are having to do that."
In several cases The Globe examined, businesses that bring in foreign workers or students were criticized for being complicit in migrant exploitation or blind to it.
Employers underpay workers so frequently that, last year, a parliamentary committee was told by a government official that half of more than 1,000 employers recently inspected for compliance under the temporary-foreign-worker program were found to be breaking the rules. Government data show that most violations are over wages.
Now, after four years in Canada, Ms. Kaur and Mr. Singh have no jobs, no work permits and no legal status to remain here permanently. They live in a basement apartment with Ms. Kaur's uncle, who pays the rent. "There are five people and there are two bedrooms," Ms. Kaur said. "My dad now is trying to get his truck-driver licence.
He is studying at home to get it."
Mr. Bansal's former assistant, Mr. Chaudhary, says that such stories are not uncommon, and that the balance of power is stacked in the consultants' favour.
Mr. Bansal, he recalled, liked to keep job and visa applicants waiting in his reception area for hours. "It was a dog eat dog, because we had 50 people [who had paid] and 10 [jobs that had work-permit approvals], so we had to pick from out of those 50," he said. "He would wear Armani pants, and all that, and make them wait outside," he said.
Mr. Chaudhary said that Mr. Bansal gave him two principal tasks: Post multiple job ads online (partly to attract yet more recruits), many for openings that didn't exist; and phone jobless clients, who had already paid for Mr. Bansal's services, to press for more payments from them.
"His thing was to get more money, because what matters is how long the client is with you. If the person is on the hook longer, you make more money," Mr. Chaudhary said.
In lawsuits and formal complaints, Mr.Bansal and other consultants are also accused of threatening and intimidating people by telling them that, if they did not pay up, the consultant would sabotage their immigration applications.
There are six complaints filed against Mr. Bansal with the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, going back to 2015. The date of his disciplinary hearing with that self-regulating body is still listed as "TBA."
Mr. Chaudhary recalls that his employer was "confident he wouldn't get caught, no matter what happens." He alleges he was once called in to work by Mr. Bansal on a Sunday in 2015 to help technicians switch out company computers and scrub case files. Later that week, he said, immigration authorities and the Canada Revenue Agency raided the office.
"Nothing came of it - because he knew beforehand what was happening," Mr.Chaudhary said. He is convinced that Mr.Bansal was tipped off.
Mr. Bansal was charged with employing foreigners illegally. Two years later, those charges were stayed.
The stories The Globe documented have striking similarities, particularly in B.C. and Ontario, which have the highest numbers of foreign recruits and immigration consultants.
One agency in Ontario - which several Filipinos turned to after the initial jobs they paid for fell apart - is facing accusations of fraud and exploitation in lawsuits from recruits who say they were "preyed upon."
Link4staff, in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, supplies workers for employers, while also charging recruits for "immigration services." The agency has been listing jobs at gas stations, pizza restaurants and a mushroom farm.
Two years ago, the provincial Labour Ministry ordered Link4staff to reimburse two of its recruits, Leizl Regalado and John Almirol, for fees it had illegally charged them.
Four other clients, all from the Philippines, have just filed a lawsuit against the agency, saying it strung them along by telling them their immigration approvals were in the works, while paying them little for months of gruelling work at Ravine Mushroom Farm in Vaughan, which is one of the biggest of its kind in Ontario.
Marisol Bobadilla, one of the plaintiffs, said a driver picked them up every morning at 5 a.m., at a house Link4staff had arranged for some of them to stay in and took them to the farm, where they would pick mushrooms as long as it took to meet the farm's requirements for the day.
Ravine Mushroom Farms declined The Globe's request for comment.
The workers estimate there were 30 recruits, all undocumented, working under the same arrangement. The farm paid Link4staff, which then paid the workers.
One pay stub from early 2017 appears to show that plaintiff Maila Ceguerra earned $770.40 in a two-week pay period, but that the agency deducted $728.33 in "tax," for various expenses, including transportation to work. What she was left with amounted to less than $5 pay for each day worked.
"And all this time, we are afraid of being caught," Ms. Ceguerra said, "because we were working illegally." She said that, at one point, she asked the agency's director, Jeanett Moskito, what more she could do to get permanent residency in Canada. Ms. Moskito's answer, according to Ms. Ceguerra, was that she could work longer hours, and pay more "tax."
The workers claim that Link4staff took a total of $86,585 from them, illegally.
They said the agency required them to authorize it to represent them with immigration authorities. It then refused to give them passwords to check their immigration files online, they said. Their lawsuits also claim the agency "forged" letters from the government to the recruits, giving updates on work-permit applications, which, the workers said, hadn't even been submitted.
There are no charges against any of the Link4staff principals. Another director, Murid Abbas Malik, is a licensed immigration consultant. Both Mr. Malik and Ms.
Moskito declined The Globe's request for an interview.
Link4staff's lawyer told The Globe its immigration agency is entirely separate from its employment agency, despite the two entities having the same name and a common director. David Myers said Link4staff is not saying its former workers are lying, but it denies documents were forged. He also said the workers agreed to - and even asked for - any expenses that were deducted from their pay.
"Link4staff is as upset about bad apples [in the industry] as anyone else ... they would embrace regulatory changes," Mr.
Two years ago, a parliamentary committee looking into a rash of complaints about immigration consultants concluded that fraud and exploitation were so prevalent that Ottawa should shut the self-regulated system down in favour of government-registered agents, similar to the system Australia uses. Nothing came of that.
Some of the cases and stories examined by The Globe appear to involve human trafficking, which the federal government defines as "the recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person."
Human trafficking is a crime in Canada, with a minimum penalty of four years in prison. Even when there is clear-cut exploitation, however, it is hard to secure a conviction, legal experts say, especially when there has been no violence or sexual abuse, because the law specifies that victims need to fear for their safety or that of someone they know.
Five of the 45 recruiters The Globe looked at have been convicted of related crimes, but they pleaded guilty to lesser immigration offences, and human-trafficking charges were dropped. Two of the five served no jail time; sentences for the others ranged from 11 months to six years.
There has been just one human-trafficking conviction in Canada involving foreign workers exploited (a decade ago) for their labour, even though people who work with migrant workers insist the practice is widespread.
A much more recent case in Ontario has been called "modern-day slavery" by the police. The operation was hiding in plain sight for many years. The Globe talked to several of the Mexican nationals affected weeks ago, before the police stepped in.
The workers all said they worked under terrible conditions, for little or no pay.
Among them was Iran Jasmine, who said she paid $2,000 to a recruiter in Mexico who promised her a good job paying $4,000 a month in Canada. She took a flight to Toronto, where Patricia Zuniga of RTL Services, based in Barrie, Ont., put her to work cleaning rooms at four-star Ontario hotels, including a Westin, and the Georgian Bay Hotel in Collingwood.
"Everything they promised me in Mexico wasn't real," said Ms. Jasmine, who worked alongside dozens of other undocumented migrants. "I was going to have a work permit and be legal to work, and that was not true."
Ms. Jasmine claims that Ms. Zuniga paid her nothing for her first week's work because she complained about the conditions. "I was told those who behaved badly would not be given work the next day, so everyone was scared to say anything," she said, adding she didn't stay past that first week.
Several recruits told The Globe that Ms.Zuniga charged them rent to stay in overcrowded, filthy houses where they had to wait for work.
Rodrigo Vazquez said he paid $600 for a spot to sleep on the floor in a house with between 28 and 30 other workers. "We had two washrooms. We were 15 people on the first floor, then there were another bunch upstairs," he said. "It was so, so small and it was full of garbage. I was bit by bedbugs every night."
He said he earned $200 to $300 a week "cleaning toilets" in the hotels. Mr. Vazquez said that Ms. Zuniga deducted costs for rent, food, transportation and the "right to work" from his pay, leaving him with $100 for a month's work.
In February, the Ontario Provincial Police raided several rented houses at which the workers were staying. Investigators now believe the operation raked in millions of dollars, off the backs of the underpaid workers.
"We can't believe how much money is involved," OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum told The Globe. "I can't believe this happens in our country, how we have people manipulating our system and our regulations and our agencies to do this."
No charges have yet been laid, however.
And Mr. Barnum acknowledged that, in the meantime, there is nothing stopping Ms.
Zuniga from leaving Canada with her profits.
Through their criminal lawyer, Bruce Daley, both Ms. Zuniga and her husband, Kevin Kielty, declined The Globe's request for an interview, but Mr. Daley emphasized that, if they are charged, they will plead not guilty.
Westin Hotels & Resorts didn't respond to The Globe's request for comment.
The Georgian Bay Hotel said it has severed all ties with RTL Services. "We are deeply saddened by the human-rights violations RTL's employees have endured," the hotel said in a statement, adding it was "unaware" of how the cleaners were being treated. It said it is now reviewing its "standards around contractual agreements ... with particular emphasis on fair treatment of workers."
About three dozen foreign workers and students, all in precarious situations, told The Globe they kept turning to recruiters and consultants for jobs and visas because they needed to keep working in Canada to pay back crippling loans they took out for recruitment fees and to support families back home.
Another recruiter, still in business in Alberta, is accused in a lawsuit of misleading several clients into paying up to $18,000 each for a hospitality-management course at Solomon College in Edmonton, by promising that he would get them a threeyear work permit when they graduated - which was never possible.
Immigration consultant Amarjot Singh is being sued, along with the private college.
Edeline Agoncillo, who is from the Philippines, says she gave him $3,500 to help her stay in Canada after temporary jobs she had also paid for ran out. Ms. Agoncillo said she was told Solomon College was her ticket.
"[Mr. Singh's assistants] made it sound like I can also get an open work permit for my husband and I can get my children to come here to study for free. It sounded great," said Ms. Agoncillo, who added that her parents mortgaged their home in the Philippines to lend her the money.
Solomon is one of many private colleges in Canada whose graduates don't qualify for long-term work permits, unlike those with public-college degrees. Many immigration consultants promote those career colleges, anyway, to get their cut of the tuition.
Mr. Singh did not respond to The Globe's request for comment. In a statement, Solomon said it makes no promises to students about getting work visas.
Jonah Falgui is another graduate who says a consultant talked her into attending Solomon. She borrowed more than $25,000 for fees, plus tuition, after coming to Canada; that amounts to five years' average salary in the Philippines. Documents show that the high-risk lender charged her more than 30-per-cent annual interest.
"Working here is the only thing that can help me pay this loan. If I was sent back to the Philippines, I cannot afford to pay it," Ms. Falgui said. "I am not optimistic about having a good future here any more."
Iran Jasmine is one of the migrants who alleges she was kept in poor conditions working for a Barrie-based employer. Ms. Jasmine, who paid $2,000 to a recruiter in Mexico, says she was denied her wages for the first week of work because she complained about the conditions. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
SOURCE: CANADA BORDER SERVICES AGENCY
Kuldeep Bansal's former assistant, Arjun Chaudhary, describes how his job involved posting ads online, many for openings that didn't exist, and calling jobless clients who had paid Mr. Bansal's agency for a chance at work in Canada. RAFAL GERSZAK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Above: Rodrigo Vazquez says he paid $600 to sleep on the floor of a crowded house. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL Above left: Jonah Falgui, left, and Edeline Agoncillo, both from the Philippines, say they both paid thousands of dollars to recruiters who promised them work permits after graduating from Solomon College in Edmonton. AMBER BRACKEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL Left: Rajbir Kaur says her father paid Kuldeep Bansal $15,000 in cash to get a temporary permit to work on a farm, which Mr. Bansal said would lead to permanent residency. The job never came and the family is struggling to get by. RAFAL GERSZAK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
A look at the conditions where Mexican workers say they lived in a Barrie, Ont., home, where they waited for shifts cleaning hotels. Twenty-eight to 30 people were crammed in small spaces, where Mr. Vazquez says he was 'bit by bedbugs every night.'