Racism and abuse complaints are at the heart of allegations against the former owner of the two Tim Hortons branches located in Dawson Creek.
"This is not how workers should be treated in Canada, no matter where they came from or how they got here," said Jim Sinclair, the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.
The complaint before the BC Human Rights Tribunal is regarding the treatment of four former staff members during their employment with Tony Van Den Bosch at both the local Tim Hortons locations.
However, the former franchise owner is vehemently denying these allegations.
"It's all made-up stories," Van Den Bosch told the Daily News.
"All that is, is to try to smear me as bad as they can... I believe they are trying to see what they can get."
Rodolfo Duran Lara, Edxon Gonzalez Chien, Eric Dessens Dessens and Ruben Omar Varela Ramirez are all Mexicans who arrived in Dawson Creek in early 2012 as temporary foreign workers with Tim Hortons. By May 20, two had been fired and two had quit alleging racism, discrimination and abuse.
That summer Eugene Kung, a lawyer with the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, began work to bring their case to against Van Den Bosch and Tim Hortons to the BC Human Rights Tribunal.
By July, Van Den Bosch was no longer working with Tim Hortons.
"That has nothing to do with what these guys are doing. That's completely different, so we're not going to go there," he said when asked about his decision to leave the company.
Many of the complaints focus on the discrimination these four men allege they endured while working for Van Den Bosch, including incidents of racism.
"Canadians aren't made to work in bakeries. That's why I spent so much money to bring Mexicans here," is one comment attributed to the franchise owner in the complaint.
It also alleges that he frequently referred to Mexicans as "drug traffickers" and said "... Mexicans are lazy. I see them resting under a tree with a sombrero."
One of the workers said that he was often belittled by managers to such an extent that customers would come to his defense.
The document also outlines instances of discrimination in the workplace. The workers allege that only Mexican employees were asked to sweep or mop the restaurant, or work in the bakery. They also complain that they were not given fixed shifts, unlike the other employees, and often had to work until midnight with a shift starting at 5 a.m. the next day.
The four say that they were prohibited from speaking Spanish, while the Canadian and Filipino staff members were allowed to socialise in their native tongues.
They also allege that the franchise owner refused to give them medical treatment and made them work when they were ill and injured.
However, Van Den Bosch denies any abuse of his employees.
"Spend all that money to fly them over, train them, house them and feed them and then to treat them horribly – Why would I spend all that money doing that when we're short on people? … To treat them that badly so they would leave that doesn't even make any business sense," he said.
The four allege that they were forced to pay $400 a month in rent to him, sharing the house with up to nine other adults, and that they believed they would be fired and sent back to Mexico if they did not agree.
The rent was divided into two $200 payments. The workers say that they were required to sign a document stating that their rent was $200 and that the second payment was called a "tip" by the owner.
"When Tim Hortons advertises the Double Double, I don't believe this is what most Canadians had in mind," said Kung.
"To me that is a slap in the face. They were all told if you can find cheaper rent anywhere go ahead, you are welcome to do it," said Van Den Bosch.
He said that the rent was paid twice a month to help them pay it off and that it was timed to coincide with their pay.
"I did that to help them out because they are poor people… nobody's going to do what I did for them. They didn't even have to pay rent for the first two weeks they were here because how do you get money out of someone who doesn't have it?" he said
"They're here for two weeks, I didn't ask for a dime. I fed them free at the store, bought groceries for them, I bought them winter clothes because they didn't have any – free – and then another two weeks go by and that's when they initially get their first check. 'Ok, now you've got to pay me $200 bucks'."
According to the complaint, he often entered their rooms without notice, including circumstances when they were naked.
However, he said that never happened: "I'm not going to go open somebody's door, that's nonsense."
The complaint also alleges that Tim Hortons contributed to the discrimination of these workers by "exacerbating the power imbalance" and by not stopping the franchise owner from housing his staff members hired as temporary foreign workers.
"Tim Hortons head office was made aware of the allegations contained in the Human Rights complaint against the former Dawson Creek restaurant owner today (Friday)," said Tim Hortons in response to questions from the Dawson Creek Daily News.
"Tim Hortons head office works with our restaurant owners and various governments to ensure compliance with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program's practices and standards. Tim Hortons restaurant owners hire their own staff and when they have difficulty filling restaurant positions with local workers, they turn to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program to appropriately staff their restaurants."
However, Kung would like to see them do more.
"We are disappointed in the way that an iconic franchise like Tim Hortons is treating its workers," he said. "We would like to see some acknowledgment of the poor treatment that the workers received. Their lives are now seriously altered because of this, it will be very difficult for them – if even at all possible for them – to ever return to Canada on a temporary workers permit."
Watch for the full story in Tuesday's edition of the Dawson Creek Daily News.