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Labour group uses social media, protests to recoup $250K in unpaid wages to international students

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Dozens of protesters outside calling for action and talking about wage theft is a scary sight for businesses — but has become an effective tactic for one Ontario collective action group in Brampton and Mississauga.

For nearly two years, Rupinder Singh felt like he had been stiffed.

The international student from India says he was out more than $4,000 after his employer, Sukh Auto, allegedly never paid his wages and vacation pay. The experience was haunting and involved Singh allegedly being struck by a shovel by the owner of the auto body shop, Sukhdeep Hunjan.

At that point, Singh, not entirely clear on the labour laws, knew the only shot to get the money he thought he was owed back would be with support.

So, he turned to Naujawan Support Network (NSN), a group mainly comprised of students, often international and immigrants based in Peel Region. Naujawan means a young person in Punjabi, the language spoken by many of the international students. They target employers they believe are exploiting workers’ rights to take collective action. The network also helps the students learn about their rights as tenants and what landlords can and can’t make them do.

“When international students or workers, primarily immigrants in Brampton, have faced exploitation in the workplace or through their landlord, they usually come to us,” said Simran Dhunna, a member of NSN.

“When a worker isn’t paid their regular paycheque, it destroys a person’s mental health, ability to pay their rent and groceries, ability to provide for their family.”

Given their track record of success, which Dhunna said totals over $250,000 recouped from employers in just over a year of operations, NSN has become a mainstay in the community.

“We initiate a public campaign to pressure the employer to pay their former worker so that the community and other workers are aware of the exploitative practices,” she said.

Naujawan Support Network holds a sign reading “justice for our workers” in both Punjabi and Urdu at a protest in front of Sukh Auto. Naujawan Support Network

Earlier this year, on May 28, outside Sukh Auto’s Brampton location, members of the group and supporting international students showed up to demand allegedly unpaid wages be paid.

They wore yellow vests and held signs in English and Punjabi calling for the money to be returned, indicating wage theft had occurred and workers’ rights were violated.

During a second protest just days later, protesters spoke in front of the auto body shop to keep the pressure on Hunjan. A video shown to Global News shows Hunjan tearing down a sign before appearing to demand the microphone.

The situation continues to escalate with some pushing back and forth before Hunjan is seen screaming at the protesters while backing up. After police arrived on the scene, protesters could be heard shouting, “You’re a thief, a thief” at Hunjan in unison.

Naujawan Support Network holds a sign reading “Sukhdeep Hunjan is a thief” in both Punjabi and Urdu at a protest in front of Sukh Auto. Supplied by Naujawan Support Network

Hunjan denies all allegations of violence and underpayment, insisting that Naujawan Support Network is out to get him and are blackmailing him. However, he did not provide any proof to corroborate those claims to Global News.

Global News contacted Hunjan several times and set times to interview him that both parties agreed upon, only for him not to follow through. On the final day, Hunjan made threats in Punjabi to Global News in a phone call.

“When everything is clear and on the slate, everyone will face their consequences, including you.”

What led to the collective action

Singh spoke to Global News in Punjabi and detailed the years-long ordeal to get his money back.

Initially, Singh worked as an apprentice mechanic for Hunjan at Sukh Auto from November 2020 until June 2021. During that time, Singh claimed that Hunjan didn’t pay him for several hours worked and vacation pay during his time working at the shop, which he said resulted in just over $4,000 in lost wages.

Singh told Global News that in November and December of 2020, despite working over 200 hours, Hunjan allegedly only paid Singh for less than a quarter of that time.

“When I asked him why my pay was so low, he told me that I was only training and working for free, which was not the agreement. He told me he’d make it up on the back end, but he never did,” Singh said.

Singh alleges that during his tenure Hunjan regularly swore and spoke down to him. Then, in March 2021, Singh says Hunjan began to cut down his hours when their relationship became more fraught.

Singh says he demanded his vacation pay and outstanding wages that he was allegedly owed at the time, but Hunjan said to get that money, he’d have to continue working longer, and he’d received a pay bump.

“He kept saying he’d make it right and pay me but never did,” he said.

Rupinder Singh speaks to a crowd of supportive protestors in front of a crowd outside his former workplace, Sukh Auto. Supplied by Naujawan Support Network

Singh says the problems persisted, and when Singh approached Hunjan in June for his alleged outstanding pay, the auto body shop owner allegedly told Singh that he would have to stay in a contract for a year to receive that money.

Singh said he handed in his two weeks resignation, despite multiple attempts to recoup the money he believed he was owed from Hunjan, but was still not paid the alleged lost wages. Finally, in January, Singh says he tried again and was invited to the shop.

“He swore at me, accused me of coming to his shop to steal money, and threatened to have me deported,” he said. “Then, he picked up a shovel and struck me on my shoulder.”

Singh says he told Hunjan that he wouldn’t back down and Hunjan allegedly pushed him out the door and threatened to call the police on theft charges.

That same day, Singh got in touch with NSN and got the ball rolling. While Sukh Auto claims that NSN targets small business owners without merit, Dhunna said that’s not true. Instead, she said the organization hears out worker’s cases, vets the documents and correspondence they’ve had, offers different solutions, and contacts the employer before any big-scale protests or measures.

In Singh’s case, they sent a demand letter to Hunjan to repay the wages allegedly owed, and after the demands in the letter were not met, they showed up at Sukh Auto’s doorsteps.

Read more: Consumer SOS: Hyundai steps in after Global News story on Orangeville dealer

On Sept. 16, the Ministry of Labour ruled in favour of Singh on four orders after an investigation. The ministry issued one order to pay wages in the amount of $4,352, one order for compensation, and two notices of contraventions. Hunjan will have 30 days to either appeal or pay the wages.

The ministry is also holding Hunjan liable for allegedly attacking Singh with a shovel.

“Based on the severity of the actions of the employer, engaging in physical violence, the claimant is entitled to $1,000.00 emotional pain and suffering,” reads the order to pay.

The order to pay is a victory for workers’ rights, Dhunna said.

“This confirms that Rupinder is owed those wages for his labour and that when workers speak up, they take collective action, that there are positive results, that it builds our collective power and enforces consequences on employers. And now we’re just hoping and not just hoping, but we will act on that hope that that is paid and that somebody complies with the order,” she said.

Exploitation of international students rampant, group says

The situation with Singh and Sukh Auto is not a one-off, according to Dhunna. She showed Global News evidence of other businesses, mainly restaurants, withholding payment from people.

Dhunna said that the problem could’ve been avoided for those who questioned their methods if the employer had done right by the worker initially and then throughout the multiple chances given when they were contacted.

“When an employer says, ‘You’re disrupting my business,’ as usual, we have to say that we’re simply pointing out the truth and fighting for our rights. We would say if an employer has exploited their worker or other workers, there should be consequences for that,” she said.

Read more: Pandemic takes tragic toll on international students with rising deaths by suicide: report

Dhunna said the onus is on first-generation Canadians who must take care of new immigrants.

“We heard of increased suicides amongst international students and heard from our networks that recent immigrants and international students were struggling, not just because of the pandemic, but from the exploitation from employers, landlords,” she said.

She added that there are people who are going to recoup their money on their terms that feel invigorated by what NSN has started, noting that there is power in numbers.

“Together, if we learn about our rights and share our experiences of common struggles, we are going to build our power and enforce some of those consequences by ourselves and with pride,” Dhunna said.

Legal matters not over yet

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour told Global News that they investigate every complaint of potential violations of employment standards, and all workers have the same rights.

“International students working in Ontario have the same employment rights as any other students,” she wrote in an email.

The issue is far from over. After Singh filed his complaint with the Ministry of Labour and NSN protested in front of the business, Hunjan filed a $515,000 defamation lawsuit against the two parties involved.

When Global News contacted Hunjan’s lawyers, they said they could not comment on an ongoing legal matter.

But, this isn’t the first nor the last time that NSN has had to defend itself against a defamatory lawsuit, according to Dhunna. She told Global News that this is often a reactionary measure used by employers to get them to back down and go away, but said it won’t work.

“It’s a tactic used by employers to silence workers for raising their voice and organizing with one another,” she said.

Ishat Reza, an employment and labour lawyer based out of Toronto, said that the claims and allegations of Hunjan and other employers making threats to deport international students are especially troubling.

“Threatening employees and those who are more vulnerable because they are from somewhere else is despicable,” she said. “There’s an imbalance of power, where an employer will have that over an employee.”

The spokesperson added that as of last fall, the government introduced legislation “to crack down on the exploitation of domestic and foreign workers. As part of these protections, our ministry launched a dedicated task force of officers who will not hesitate to issue fines or press charges when required.”

Read more: International student arrested, facing deportation for working too many hours

And while more resources are being added to address this situation, Reza thinks that the province needs to step up for workers and ensure they’re educated before entering an exploitative situation.

“The Ministry of Labour needs to do more outreach to address some of these communities and make sure that they know what their rights are and how things operate in Canada,” she said.

However, the increased measures don’t have significant enough impacts to encourage employers to do the right thing, according to Dhunna.

“The labour court, the system is not sufficient in enforcing consequences on employers on workers’ rights, who violated and abused their workers,” she said

While NSN does provide educational seminars and programming at colleges, Reza added that there should be a greater onus on colleges and universities that make a ton of money off international students’ fees and need to step up to the plate too.

“It’s great that community groups are working to help these students know their rights and advocate for them when they’ve been given the short end of the stick. The colleges and universities bringing in students from all over the world need to make them aware,” she said.

Despite receiving the order to pay, Dhunna and NSN plan to continue ensuring that Singh and others who they believe are being taken advantage of are paid what they are owed.

“We’re on the path of truth, and it shows that in our organization if we fight for our rights, we fight for what’s truthful, we have nothing to fear.”

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