HALIFAX — Emotional workers spoke out against a Halifax businessman at his sentencing hearing Friday in an immigration fraud case that exposed the exploitation of foreign workers and divided the local Filipino community.
Hector Mantolino, originally from the Philippines, pleaded guilty in December 2017 to misrepresentation under provisions of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
The owner and operator of several cleaning and maintenance companies used the temporary foreign worker program to staff his companies, bringing 28 workers to Canada from the Philippines over a number of years.
But workers say they were underpaid and mistreated, remaining quiet for fear of being deported back to the Southeast Asian country.
The Crown is recommending a sentence of two years in prison, noting the need to deter “like-minded individuals” and to fully denounce the offences against vulnerable workers.
“Temporary foreign workers are part of Canada’s economic landscape. When the program is comprised by employers who lie, the effects are far reaching,” Crown lawyer Timothy McLaughlin said in a sentencing brief filed with the court.
The case appears to have caused a rift in the city’s Filipino community, with some continuing to support Mantolino even while others denounce his actions.
Despite the prominent businessman’s guilty plea, some of the workers expressed trepidation about sharing their experiences out of fear of retaliation.
“We were hearing that some were concerned that there could be repercussions to reading the victim impact statement in court and we wanted to speak to the judge about that,” defence lawyer Lee Cohen said in an interview.
“We want people to understand that in a Canadian court, everybody is free to express themselves freely,” he said. “We just wanted to be sure that everybody understood that.”
After meeting with Crown and defence lawyers in his chambers, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Glen McDougall told the court that victims have a statutory right to read their victim impact statements without fear of reprisals.
Two Filipino workers read their statements Friday, in addition to four workers who read their statements last month.
Rhodee Benigla, who signed a contract as a cleaner in 2010, described feeling “hopeless” about his meagre pay and fear of being sent back to the Philippines.
“Those were the days that my self-esteem was at the very lowest part of my life,” he said. “Being deprived of a proper salary for almost two years is a trauma deeply engraved on my heart.”
Even after Mantolino was arrested, Benigla said many continue to live in fear of harassment.
“This has caused problems in the Philippine community,” he said, noting that Mantolino has many relatives and supporters who have accused the workers of being ungrateful and owing the businessman a “debt of gratitude.”
Meanwhile, Raymond Basilio, who also signed a contract as a cleaner in 2010, said he felt sad and homesick about being unable to send money to his family in the Philippines due to his very low salary and long hours of work.
He said Mantolino took his tax refund, and made him do extra work at his house such as gardening, mowing and snow plowing.
“I had no choice but to follow his orders,” Basilio said. “I lost my pride and self-respect doing all his orders and errands.”
According to a joint statement of facts, Mantolino, the operator of Mantolino Property Services Ltd., signed contracts with the workers stipulating a rate of pay that he knew wouldn’t be paid to them.
The total difference between the official salaries and the amounts actually paid to the workers is “no less than $500,000,” according to the court document.
McLaughlin said although there are some expenses employers can charge for, such as accommodations, travel is considered an employer expense.
Meanwhile, a third worker said he was grateful to Mantolino for helping him come to Canada, and that given the opportunity he would work for the businessman again.
The sentencing hearing resumes Jan. 25. It’s expected more victim impact statements will be read, followed by sentencing arguments.
“This case is not about the hiring of temporary foreign workers, rather it is about exploiting foreign labour markets and taking advantage of temporary foreign workers’ personal financial circumstances to fill a company’s need for profit,” McLaughlin said in his sentencing brief.
“It is the selling of the Canadian dream of permanent residency at an exploitive price.”
Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press