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Greenhouse workers question firings, but company says it did nothing wrong




Tiffany Mayer


A firing of more than a dozen workers at a Jordan greenhouse has former employees speculating their jobs were terminated to make way for potentially cheaper workers from Guatemala.


The Standard

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A firing of more than a dozen workers at a Jordan greenhouse has former employees speculating their jobs were terminated to make way for potentially cheaper workers from Guatemala.

But their employer, Lakeshore Inc., says it has done nothing wrong — a claim backed up Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, which runs the temporary foreign worker program.

Still, six former Lakeshore general labourers, who contacted The Standard recently, said 26 Canadian workers with several years’ service at the greenhouse were given termination notice June 26 for work performance issues.

But soon after being told, while finishing their term, workers from Guatemala began filling their positions, they said.

“I’m just devastated,” said Maria Phelan, a St. Catharines resident who worked for Lakeshore for five years. “It wasn’t because of my work performance. It’s because 26, 27 of us got fired and 26, 27 Guatemalans came in. When you put two and two together, I don’t get three. I get four.”

Lakeshore owner Jim Olsthoorn said 17 people were fired “based on performance and attendance, based on our progressive discipline in our employee handbook, which is in conjunction with the Employment Standards Act.”

Given the seasonal nature of the greenhouse business and that the company employs 254 people, Olsthoorn said terminating 17 positions isn’t unusual.

He said the company, which produces potted plants and cut flowers, hires locally and also employs workers from Mexico and Guatemala. But he doesn’t know who, if anyone, replaced the 17 let go in June.

When Lakeshore does hire workers using the temporary foreign worker program, it abides by the program’s rules, he said.

Not to be confused with the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which allows farmers to bring in workers from Mexico and the Caribbean for up to eight months a year, the temporary foreign worker program allows employers to go abroad to fill low-skilled jobs in more sectors. Workers can also stay in Canada for up to two years.

Employers must prove they have tried but can’t find Canadians or permanent residents to fill jobs first before tapping into foreign labour.

When asked if the company tries to fill jobs with Canadian workers first, Olsthoorn said, “I’ve laid it out quite clearly how the program works here. All the approvals, we’ve obtained, and there’s really nothing more to add to that.”

HRSDC spokeswoman Julie Hahn said her department can’t find any wrongdoing by Lakeshore.

“HRSDC has looked into the allegations and found that they cannot be supported by evidence,” Hahn wrote in an e-mail.

She stressed that employers must do a labour market opinion, a process proving they tried to find Canadian workers first but couldn’t.

Hiring foreign workers is a “last resort,” she wrote.

Employers must also have ongoing recruitment in place for domestic labour.

But “HRSDC/Service Canada does not oversee or interfere with the hiring or dismissal process of individual employees,” she wrote.

Still, Phelan isn’t alone in her doubts about the company’s reasons for hiring so many people at one time.

Those who spoke to The Standard had worked for Lakeshore between two and five years. The workers, all Niagara residents, said they felt blindsided by their dismissal and confused by the way they were fired.

“If you’re useless now, you were useless then,” said John Pierotti, who worked for Lakeshore for two years.

Pierotti, 63, wondered if his age had something to do with it.

Brad Butcher, a three-year Lakeshore veteran, wondered if it was the time off he needed in May for surgery to deal with his acid reflux.

Cathy Clark, at Lakeshore for four years, wondered why she got fired at all.

Workers said the company didn’t go through the steps for termination outlined in their employee handbooks, including a discussion with a supervisor about any problems, a verbal warning, a written warning, and suspension.

The handbook says those steps don’t have to occur in cases when the employee’s actions are serious enough to warrant immediate termination.

Olsthoorn said all the fired workers were given previous notice of performance issues.

“They’re all fully, fully aware of it,” he said.

With the exception of Pierotti, the workers said they were also kept on for nearly two weeks after being told they were losing their jobs.

“I was stunned,” Clark, 52, said. “If you get fired, don’t you lose your job that day? I got more hours. I couldn’t figure that out.”

Meanwhile, she said Guatemalan workers began filling positions.

Pierotti said he has taken up the issue with Niagara West-Glanbrook MPP Dean Allison.

Allison said he’s looking into the allegations.

“I will say that I do not support any company misusing or misrepresenting the temporary foreign workers program,” Allison said. “The whole reason it was set up was obviously because they couldn’t get local workers. These are allegations right now and we are looking into them.”

Despite Allison’s stance on possible program abuses, Stan Raper, agriculture workers program co-ordinator for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said the process employers go through isn’t as strenuous as HRSDC suggests.

“It’s a rubber-stamping kind of process. There’s no real investigation into whether the employer has met the obligations of the labour market opinion,” Raper said.

“There’s no monitoring, there’s no enforcement by the federal government,” he added. “This current federal government has made it so easy for employers to dump Canadians and search the world for the cheapest, most exploitable workers that you can find.”

As for what’s next for the fired workers, Pierotti is pursuing legal action.

Others say they need to find new jobs fast, while the rest simply don’t know.

“You’re pushing 60, so where do you go from here?” Phelan said.

“I just want to wake up Canada about what’s happening.”

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