Group of foreign workers allege verbal abuse, unfair treatment at Manitoba’s Elkhorn Resort

A group of foreign workers has filed complaints with an organization that fights for the rights of migrant workers about a western Manitoba resort, alleging their employer has treated them unfairly. 

Migrante Manitoba says since the start of this year, it has received complaints from four different workers regarding Elkhorn Resort, just outside Riding Mountain National Park.

“We hear folks are being threatened to be sent back to their country of origin and sent back to the Philippines during the pandemic year, folks not being paid overtime wages,” said Diwa Marcelino, an organizer with the organization. 

“People [are] talking about [how] they’ve received discrimination or they’ve been yelled at by their bosses,” he said.

Three of the four workers who complained have spoken to CBC, including Michael Flores, who came to Canada through the Manitoba provincial nominee program. 

Diwa Marcelino is an organizer with Migrante Manitoba. He says he’s received complaints from four different workers about Elkhorn Resort this year. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Flores says he was wrongfully fired because he stood up to his supervisor — Elkhorn’s head chef. CBC spoke with five people, including Flores, who accuse the chef of being verbally abusive.

Flores says he’s now speaking out because he believes the company has been mistreating Filipino foreign workers, and filed a complaint with a federal government agency on July 11.

Elkhorn Resort denies the allegations, saying it provides a fair workplace for staff. A spokesperson says this month, they received a compliance audit request from Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada. 

General manager Chris Phillips says he submitted the compliance audit with IRCC, and expects the results of that audit will come back clear. 

Cook says he was fired without cause

Flores, who is 34 years old and has a wife and three children in the Philippines, says he started working as a line cook for the resort in January 2020. 

“I came here for my family because I know there’s a very good future for my kids.”

He was promoted to assistant to the head chef during his first year of working there, he said.

“Everything was good. They allowed me to work there … and just kept on messaging me that ‘you’re a good worker, we’re so happy to have you here now,'” he said. 

But he says everything changed after an exchange he had with the head chef, his direct supervisor, on Dec. 8, 2021.

Flores says he asked the chef why there was no dishwasher scheduled for that night — meaning the dishes were Flores’s responsibility, because he was working the closing shift. 

“And then suddenly he was like, ‘You know what, Mikey? Thank you for all your hard work. You can go home to your country,'” said Flores. 

“He gave me a lot of anxiety at that time.… I didn’t sleep very well,” he said. “Like, why [is] this guy trying to fire me — for what reason?” 

Flores said in early July, he pushed back about cleaning a sink, asking the chef why he was always on the closing shift rather than being put on the rotating schedule.

He was told the closer cleans the kitchen and the issue wasn’t up for discussion, he said.

Flores was then fired on July 8 this year, with a letter saying he was insubordinate, he told CBC.

The general manager of Elkhorn Resort in Onanole, Man., just outside Riding Mountain National Park, says about a dozen of the resort’s 84 staff members are foreign workers. ‘Our goal is to be the employer of choice in the area,’ says Chris Phillips. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

The resort’s general manager says Flores was let go because of poor behaviour, including yelling in the chef’s face. 

“I have nine incident reports that allege or indicate … just very poor behaviour,” Phillips told CBC. “His attitude, he just wouldn’t take direction.” 

Flores says he wasn’t aware of any incident reports, and he never received any written notices about them. 

“I believe there should be a process before they fire me,” he said. 

Employees allege verbal abuse by chef

In addition to Flores, four other people who have worked or currently work for Elkhorn Resort told CBC they experienced verbal abuse from the head chef. Three of those five people are among those who filed complaints with Migrante Manitoba.

CBC is not naming three of them because they fear losing their jobs. Two of those people didn’t want to speak on the record.

One foreign worker said the head chef would often yell at him. 

“He was shouting, ‘You’re all f–king useless, go home,'” the worker said.

“I can’t work with him anymore because he was always shouting at me.… What am I here? I’m a slave or something like that?”

Gillian Robertson, who is Flores’s friend, has worked for the company as a server since January 2020. She says she often heard “temper tantrums” from the head chef.

“If he is angry about certain things, he lashes out towards the employees that are on shift, and it makes it a really hard work atmosphere for everyone,” she said. “If you’re in the kitchen at the same time, everyone kind of feels that negative energy, right?”

A woman in a black shirt stands in front of a building outside in a tree-shaded area on a sunny day.
Gillian Robertson says she started working for Elkhorn Resort as a server in January 2020. She says she’s heard ‘temper tantrums’ from the head chef. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

In response to the allegations, Phillips says he has never received a human resources complaint about the head chef since the chef was hired in 2019. 

“I don’t really believe that he operates that way.… I believe chef is very fair. He has a great track record in his previous jobs,” Phillips said.

“The Filipino workers are a very tight community, and since Michael was let go, there’s probably some hard feelings, and it’s a little bit of ‘us against them,’ because they protect their own.”

‘We provide a great workplace’: manager

Four of the workers CBC spoke to also alleged that Filipino foreign workers are treated unfairly in the kitchen, and are expected to work more overtime.

“You can look at the schedule on any given week and the foreign employees work six days a week, and the other ones work five,” said Robertson. “It just needs to be equalized.” 

Phillips denies that allegation. Overtime is always on a volunteer basis, and staff are asked if they want to work extra hours or shifts, the general manager said.

Elkhorn Resort currently has 84 staff members, about a dozen of whom are foreign workers, he said.

The company is spending $1 million to develop staff housing on site so they can live together in one area, rather than be spread out like they currently are, said Phillips.

“I think we provide a great workplace. Our goal is to be the employer of choice in the area,” said Phillips. 

“I have a very open-door policy, so if staff ever want to come and see me, if they have an issue, they’re more than welcome to, and they all know that.”

Issues common, says advocate 

Migrante Manitoba’s Marcelino says the issues alleged at Elkhorn Resort are common in Manitoba. His organization is now trying to encourage the workers to use resources available to them to ensure their rights, he said.

“We want to empower workers to actually fight for themselves and to take their issues to their employers, and to their elected politicians and to the government,” he said. 

Marcelino says foreign workers recruited through the Manitoba provincial nominee program — a fast-track immigration option that allows the province to nominate people to immigrate — are promised permanent residency, so they’re more likely to endure abuse. 

“They’d want to stick with an employer so that they don’t have to wait longer, so that they can receive their permanent residence and probably be reunited with family members and loved ones back home,” said Marcelino. 

Flores finally got his permanent residency last week, and says the first thing he did was phone his family in the Philippines. ‘I was laughing and crying,’ he says. ‘I’m so happy.’ (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Asked how it determines if a business is eligible for the nominee program, the province told CBC employer applications are considered on a case-by-case basis.

The province says it reviews whether a business has paid penalties for breaking employment laws or have been found non-compliant by the federal government

Flores, meanwhile, says he obtained his permanent residency last Tuesday — meaning he’s not yet a Canadian citizen, but is now entitled to most social benefits citizens have, including the right to live, work or study anywhere in the country.

The first thing he did was call his family in the Philippines.

“To be honest, when I called them, I was laughing and crying,” he said. “I’m so happy.” 

Flores says he’s looking forward to finding work elsewhere as a cook, and hopes to bring his wife and children to Canada soon.

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