by SUSAN MANN
Canada Border Services Agency officers took four workers employed at the eastern Ontario Skotidakis dairy goat farm into custody Wednesday as part of an investigation on illegal workers hired through a Montreal employment agency.
Skotidakis Goat Farm owner John Skotidakis said he was surprised when Agency officers arrived at his farm Wednesday at 7 a.m. They remained all day. “They inspected the premises. They left with four persons that were illegal.”
Skotidakis said the farm itself wasn’t charged by the Agency.
He said he didn’t know where Agency officials took the workers.
Stéphane Malépart, Agency regional assistant director of communications for the Quebec Region, said by email 40 Agency officers with support from the Ontario Provincial Police participated in the operation looking into a Montreal employment agency and its owner. The Agency officials conducted verifications on the farm workers Wednesday at the Skotidakis farm located in St-Eugène in Ontario. The Agency didn’t say where the workers’ country of origin was.
In addition to doing the farm worker verifications at the Skotidakis farm, Agency officials executed search warrants Wednesday in Montreal and in Beloeil, an off island suburb of Montreal.
Skotidakis said the four people who were taken away by Agency officials were among 10 temporary workers he employed through the Montreal agency. The farm has a total of 180 workers. “The four people weren’t properly documented,” he said, adding he didn’t know the workers didn’t have the proper documents to work in Canada.
“We’re taking action as of today to eliminate all similar occurrences,” he said, noting he will no longer be using agencies to hire workers. But he admits it’s hard to find people to work on farms. The four people taken away were involved in looking after the goats, feeding them and cleaning up manure.
The 1,500-acre farm has more than 3,000 goats. It also has a 100,000 square foot production facility to process goat and cow’s milk into cheeses, Greek yogurt and yogurt-based dips sold at retail outlets and also to the food service industry, where it provides industrial-sized products to restaurants, manufacturers and distributors. Its products are sold in both Canada and the United States.
Malépart said he couldn’t say how the Agency learned there might be illegal workers at the farm. “This is protected information due to the ongoing investigation.” He also couldn’t name the employment agency or its owner.
“No further information can be disclosed by CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) at this stage,” he said.
He also couldn’t confirm that there were any arrests “but our actions are aimed at any person who does not comply with the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.”
Skotidakis said he didn’t think the investigation should have any effect on Skotidakis’ customers. “Our customers should be supportive. The ratio of employees that we were using from the temp agency compared to our entire work force was not a lot. It was less than three per cent.”
As for the situation having any potential impact on the combined federal/provincial government funding of about $6.3 million the business has received during the past five years to upgrade and expand its operations, Skotidakis said “I don’t have a comment on that.”
The government funding for the business has come from a variety of programs, including a $4.2 million interest free loan in 2014 from the AgriInnovation program of Growing Forward 2, the national agricultural policy framework. The business also received Ontario government funding in the past five years through the provincial Eastern Ontario Development Fund, designed to help create jobs and business growth.
Skotidakis said he didn’t anticipate the government would require him to repay any previous grant money received to add improvements to his operation because of this situation as “we’re still here in business.”
James Watson, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) media relations officer, said by email the federal department cannot “comment on the implications of this ongoing investigation by the CBSA.” But the project involving the $4.2 million interest-free federal loan to Skotidakis to introduce innovative production technology help increase the company’s production of Greek feta and ricotta cheese products is ongoing. “Skotidakis is bound to the legal terms of its funding arrangement with AAFC,” Watson said.
Similarly, an Ontario government official declined to comment on the specifics of Wednesday’s events at the farm due to the ongoing investigation. “However we are monitoring the situation very closely to ensure that the company remains in compliance with the terms and conditions of the agreement,” Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure Ministry senior media adviser Brigitte Marleau said by email.
Skotidakis received a $750,000 grant in March 2014 from the Eastern Ontario Development Fund to expand its dairy processing facility and create 15 new jobs. Marleau said funding is provided to a company in stages over the lifespan of the agreement and “the majority of funding has not flowed at this point in time.”
She added each contract negotiated as part of the development fund has a stringent due diligence process that includes “monetary claw back provisions. If the mutually agreed upon targets, including investment and job creation/retention targets and timelines are not met, the province has recourse to recover money that has already been flowed.” BF