Prison time for first Albertan convicted under refugee protection laws
‘They felt like second-class citizens,’ judge says of exploited foreign workers
By Janice Johnston, CBC News Posted: May 20, 2016 4:59 PM MT Last Updated: May 20, 2016 7:36 PM MT
An Edmonton woman who once told an employee « if you can stand, you can work » has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for exploiting more than 70 foreign workers.
Jennilyn Morris is the first person in Alberta to be charged and convicted under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Teodora Bautista was one of her victims.
The single mother wanted to provide a better life for her five children in the Philippines.
To do that, she came to Canada because she believed she could make as much working one day here as working three days back home.
On April 22, 2009, Bautista arrived in Edmonton as a foreign national, sponsored by Morris.
She signed a contract with Morris that promised her a 44-hour work week doing residential and commercial cleaning for $11.44 an hour.
Reality was much different.
Single mom worked 18-hour days
According to an agreed statement of facts, the single mom often worked 18-hour days. She was paid $9.50 an hour to clean at a local hotel, then Morris would send her to a second job inserting flyers for $8 an hour.
Bautista did not believe she could safely say no to the extra hours, or the extra job. Almost everything she made was sent back to the Philippines to support her family.
« Bautista worked long hours and sometimes worked all day and then all night, » court document said. « When she questioned Morris about the hours, Morris responded by saying, ‘If you can stand, you can work.’ »
Bautista was 42 at the time.
« Morris told her that she had brought her here and she could send her home, » according to the agreed statement of facts.
Bautista began having blackouts. She collapsed from exhaustion on August 9, 2010, and was taken to the hospital. Given a doctor’s note for work and a note for depression counselling, she was also provided with employment standards support. Once she learned her rights, she quit working for Morris the same day.
Bautista’s story was repeated over and over by many victims.
‘Stress, anxiety, depression’
Morris pleaded guilty in February to two charges under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Three other charges, including human trafficking, were dropped.
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Kenneth Nielsen rejected a defence request Friday to let Morris go with a conditional discharge or house arrest, citing the toll her actions have taken on dozens of victims.
« It is clear the actions of Ms. Morris have had a significant impact, » he said. « Stress, anxiety, depression, tiredness and inability to sleep. They felt vulnerable. »
The judge listened to 28 victim impact statements earlier this week. He made note of the victims’ shame, shock, confusion and lack of confidence.
« They felt like second-class citizens, » he said. « They felt if they expressed their concerns, they’d have their work hours reduced or get sent back to the Philippines. »
A pre-sentence report prepared for the court noted Morris has accepted « minimal responsibility for her actions. »
The court also ordered Morris to pay $22,000 in restitution to some of her victims.
Morris showed no expression as sheriffs led her from the courtroom. There was no one in court to support her. Only a few of her victims attended, and they declined to speak to reporters.
Danielle Monroe with the Alberta Action Coalition on Human Trafficking said she was happy with the outcome of the case.
« This ‘s a really good day, » Monroe said outside the courthouse.
Sends a strong message
She said the sentence sends a strong message of deterrence to other employers.
Monroe said she finds it ironic that Morris, 46, was once in similar circumstances to the workers she exploited. She came to Canada from the Philippines in 1998 to work as a live-in nanny.
« But that just goes to show that it can happen anywhere, » Monroe said. « Anybody can be a perpetrator. Anybody can be a victim. »
Prosecutor Michelle Ferguson said she, too, was pleased with the outcome.
« We think this is a significant jail sentence for this offense. Hopefully it will work to deter others that would commit the same offense. »
Ferguson said no one else has been charged yet in Alberta under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
« I’m aware of many investigations that are ongoing, » she said.