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Firm facing foreign-worker allegations considers legal action against Port Alberni

Allegations San Group provided accommodation that was in poor condition and lacked running water to temporary foreign workers are false, the company says
Port Alberni City Hall. VIA GOOGLE STREET VIEW

A Langley-based forestry company with operations in Port Alberni is considering suing the city for damage to the company’s reputation, as a result of what it says are false claims that the firm is mistreating foreign temporary workers.

San Group has not filed a lawsuit, but it has put Port Alberni on notice that it may, said Bob Bortolin, vice-president of business development.

The company is facing allegations that it provided accommodation that was in poor condition and lacked running water to temporary foreign workers, something Bortolin said is not true.

“We want to make sure our name is cleared. That’s the big thing. That’s why the owners are even looking at possible legal action,” he said.

He said accommodation was not included in the contract with the workers, who were from Vietnam, but the company decided to provide a trailer as free temporary housing for up to 10 men who were having trouble finding a place to live.

The trailer is on another property owned by the company about 15 kilometres out of the city, he said.

Bottled water was provided to the workers, because the running water was not potable, he said.

When the company found out that more than 10 people were living in the trailer, it decided to start charging $350 per person per month to cover the costs of water, power and hauling out sewage, he said.

Bortolin said the company believes that a third party may have misled the workers into thinking they would receive free housing and food and a path to permanent residency. Language barriers make communicating with the Vietnamese men challenging, he said.

“There’s more to it than meets the eye,” Bortolin said.

The City of Port Alberni issued a brief statement last week saying it had recently been made aware of a complaint involving temporary foreign workers recruited to work in Port Alberni.

“The complaint raised concerns around the living accommodations of the workers. The city immediately notified local authorities when they were made aware of the complaint to investigate the matter. The relevant provincial and federal authorities will address the situation accordingly,” the statement said.

The city said in another statement Monday that it had received a letter from San Group about comments it made. The city said it has reviewed the letter and intends to respond.

Questions about the temporary foreign worker program should be directed to the provincial and federal governments and other agencies involved, the city said.

Bortolin said that on Thursday night around 10:30 p.m., RCMP officers and fire officials visited a different property San Group owns in Port Alberni, without authorization and without notifying the company. The visit was captured on video cameras, he said.

Bortolin said authorities were seen arriving at a locked gate and walking around the facility, including going into a room containing electrical equipment that is off limits to most employees because of the hazards of high voltages.

The company would have given authorities access to the entire site if they had asked and come during the day, he said.

“But to have the fire department and the RCMP coming in at that time of day really makes you wonder what’s going on,” he said.

The city confirmed the visit was related to a 2022 letter the company had received saying no structures on the property should be used as sleeping quarters.

No one has ever lived on that property, said Bortolin, who emphasized it is not the property where the men were living in a trailer.

Byron Cruz, the migrant workers program co-ordinator for the B.C. Federation of Labour, said he is supporting the men, who are now in Victoria, as they determine their next steps.

They are deciding whether to share their complaints publicly, he said.

Asked if the men are living at the Salvation Army shelter in Victoria, the organization would only say it is assisting several migrant workers who required urgent support, adding: “We ask the public and the media to respect their privacy during this sensitive time. We are collaborating with local authorities, and our collective focus right now is ensuring their well-being and safety.”

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