The billionaire Aquilini family gave $1.6 million to the BC Liberals as the BC Liberals were making it easier to exploit migrant workers
A family of high-end BC Liberal donors accused of bullying and mistreating its employees is also accused of consistently subjecting migrant farmworkers to dangerous working conditions for over a decade.
The Aquilini family, whose $3 billion fortune is linked to agriculture and real estate, gave the BC Liberals $1.6 million between 2005 and 2017, including $25,000 to ex-premier Christy Clark’s 2010 leadership campaign and $5,000 to current BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson’s campaign in 2017.
Seven former temporary foreign workers at the Aquilini’s Golden Eagle berry farm came forward this week alleging they were forced to live in cramped living spaces, suffered injuries and fell sick from pesticide fumes while at work.
The migrant farmworkers also alleged they were routinely harassed, intimidated and threatened with deportation by management on the family’s farm.
Vice News reported female migrant workers at the farm said they were sexually harassed and threatened with deportation by the farm’s male employees.
The Aquilini Group previously issued a statement claiming its former employees’ allegations were “unfounded and false.”
This letter went out to media seeking a response to allegations made by temporary foreign workers at our Golden Eagle Farm. pic.twitter.com/6Xd9Q3Ao2p
— Francesco Aquilini (@fr_aquilini) May 29, 2019
But the former employees’ accounts come after WorkSafe BC slapped the Aquilinis with a $53,000 penalty earlier this month for using unsafe vehicles to transport workers. The Aquilini family also had to pay out $133,000, following complaints the billionaire family underpaid 174 Guatemalan berry workers last summer.
Canadian Business listed the Aquilini family as Canada’s 27th wealthiest in 2018, with a net worth of $3.3 billion. In addition to Golden Eagle farm, the family owns a multi-billion dollar real estate development company, as well as the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.
And, the most recent penalties against the Aquilini family follow a long history of workers and regulators finding the billionaire family mistreated its very vulnerable employees. For example:
- In 2006, a group of Mexican migrant workers at the family’s farm complained they were underpaid, bullied by management, poorly sheltered and forced to use filthy bathroom facilities.
- In 2010, WorkSafe BC also fined the Aquilinis a total of $120,000 for using dangerous vehicles to transport workers, and for not giving an injured worker timely access to first aid.
- In 2012, subsequent inspections found conditions on the farm hadn’t improved, resulting in an additional $125,000 penalty.
- In 2013, the Aquilini’s farming company topped the list for worker-safety violations in BC, with 260 penalties levelled against them in one year.
Despite their track record following provincial labour laws, the Aquilinis maintained cozy relations with the old BC Liberal government.
Raptors courtside. Linden. Christy Clark. Martine Argent, gf of Francesco Aquilini. FA. MLSE coowner Larry Tanenbaum. pic.twitter.com/Ao5l3OoxPQ
— David Ebner (@DavidEbner) October 6, 2014
Francesco Aquilini, dubbed the “public face” of the multi-billion dollar family operation, reportedly “had access” to Clark’s office during her premiership. The Tyee remarked this access was a “valuable connection given the conglomerate’s various projects in BC.”
The old BC Liberal government also worked to tear up employment standards laws protecting farmworkers, starting from the Gordon Campbell government onwards, after extensive lobbying from major farm owners.
Those changes included reducing minimum piece-rates paid to workers by 4% and excluding workers paid on an hourly basis from receiving statutory holiday and vacation pay.
A 2008 CCPA report found the BC Liberals’ lax regulations and enforcements put farmworkers hired under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program at much increased risk of dangerous pesticide exposure, unsafe transportation and extremely low pay.
“Their options for finding alternative employment are few and they have little power to challenge poor working conditions. If they are sponsored, they often feel compelled to repay their families for bringing them to Canada and supporting them here.”
Other experts recently told PressProgress that even with improvements to the provincial employment standards code, Canada’s Federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program itself allows employers to easily circumvent minimum standards.