Home Workplace News Migrant farmworker’s sexual assault allegations against Okanagan winemaker shine light on a wider issue

Migrant farmworker’s sexual assault allegations against Okanagan winemaker shine light on a wider issue

by Local Journalism Initiative
By Zak Vescera | The Tyee

A prominent Okanagan winemaker has been accused of sexually assaulting a foreign farmworker in his employ, bringing attention to advocates’ concerns about sexual abuse of migrant farmhands.

Randhir (Randy) Toor, co-owner and former president of Desert Hills Estate Winery in Oliver, is being accused by a Mexican farmworker of sexually assaulting her after a party at Toor’s cabin last month.

Toor has not been charged with any crime but is named in a December RCMP search warrant application filed in Penticton provincial court, as first reported by Joe Fries in the Penticton Herald.

The RCMP file number on that warrant is the same as the one on an Oliver RCMP press release issued last week saying a “prominent member” of the local winemaking industry had been accused of sexual assault and urging any other victims to come forward.

The allegations have not been tested in court and Toor, a former Oliver town councillor and RCMP auxiliary officer, did not respond to messages sent to his personal email address and social media accounts.

In a statement, lawyer Vincent Michaels said he is representing Toor.

“To be clear, Mr. Toor has not been charged with any offences arising from the investigation you refer to,” Michaels wrote. “If charges are ever approved, Mr. Toor welcomes that opportunity to better understand the substance and basis of these allegations.”

“We are presently conducting our own inquiries to try to determine the facts behind all of this,” he wrote.

The Tyee has not been able to contact the woman accusing Toor and does not publish the names of complainants in sexual assault cases without their permission.

Support workers in the Okanagan and academics, while not speaking about the details of this case, say sexual assaults against migrant farmworkers in British Columbia are a common and unchecked problem. Abusers are sometimes also their employers, their landlords and their only way of legally remaining in the country. Those on closed work permits are generally required to return home if they’re fired or laid off.

Anelyse Weiler is a sociology professor at the University of Victoria who has worked directly with migrant farmworkers who were survivors of sexual assault. She said the few cases that are reported likely “represent just the tip of the iceberg of sexual violence towards agricultural workers in B.C.”

The alleged crime

According to the RCMP sworn application for a search warrant, the woman alleges the Okanagan businessman picked her and two female co-workers up from an Osoyoos Tim Hortons on the afternoon of Dec. 2.

The three, all Mexican nationals, worked for Toor at a farm he owned in nearby Cawston.

Toor drove the group to a cabin he owns at the Mount Baldy ski resort for an “evening of food, drink and jacuzzi,” the RCMP application said.

The woman reported that “she had gotten intoxicated and fallen asleep in the nearest bedroom on the second level of the cabin late in the evening but had woken up at some point and Toor was on top of her,” the application said. She told RCMP officers she was “unable to care for herself due to her level of intoxication.”

The woman said that the next morning “she did not feel normal, her genitals hurt and she [was] visibly upset and crying.”

The woman said she confronted Toor and he said he had only gone into her bedroom to place a blanket on her.

The woman told the RCMP that after Toor returned her to the farm, she contacted a local support worker who helps migrant farmworkers. They went to the Penticton Regional Hospital, where conclusions of a sexual assault forensic examination were “indicative of a sexual assault,” according to the warrant application prepared by RCMP Const. Paula Good.

Jesús Valdés, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Vancouver, said in an email that they had provided financial aid to the woman and that the investigation was a “top priority for the Mexican government.”

Cpl. James Grandy said police were unable to release further details “to preserve the integrity of the investigation.”

At the time of the alleged crime, Toor was the president of Desert Hills Estate Winery, a company he co-founded with his twin brother in the late 1990s when they planted the first Syrah vines in the South Okanagan. The winery now farms more than 80 acres of grapes across four separate vineyards in the region.

On Dec. 22, the winery posted on Facebook that Toor “decided to retire” from his position as president. The winery’s manager did not respond to questions about whether Toor’s departure was related to the allegations against him. That Facebook post has since been deleted.

In 2022 Toor pleaded guilty to his involvement in a fraudulent immigration scheme, admitting a company he co-directed created fake jobs to recruit temporary foreign workers. He agreed to pay $90,000 as part of a settlement.

A system ripe for abuse

Weiler began studying sexual violence against migrant farmworkers in the early 2010s, inspired by her first-hand experience assisting victims of sexual assault while volunteering in the Okanagan.

Last year, more than 12,000 temporary foreign workers received a permit to work in British Columbia’s agricultural sector. That number has ballooned in the past decade as local farmers increasingly rely on workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica and elsewhere to harvest the province’s crops.

Such permits typically restrict those workers to doing a single job for a single employer, who is usually also their landlord.

Weiler and other critics say that creates a ripe situation for exploitation of all kinds, including sexual abuse, much of which is never reported to authorities.

“Really, low-wage temporary foreign worker programs are designed in a way that invites an abuse of power, because they make workers deportable and unable to easily leave bad jobs,” Weiler said. “Sexual violence is just one of the flavours of exploitation baked into Canada’s migrant farmworker program.”

A 2021 Statistics Canada study found as little as six per cent of total incidents of sexual assault in the country ever come to the attention of law enforcement.

Weiler believes migrant workers are even less likely to report such cases because of language barriers, social isolation and the “lopsided, disproportionate power that employers hold over workers” in Canada’s temporary foreign worker programs.

There are no hard statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault against migrant farmworkers in Canada. But in the United States, one recent study identified as many as 80 per cent of Mexican agricultural workers had experienced sexual abuse or harassment on the job.

Juliana Cliplef, a staff lawyer with the Migrant Workers Centre legal clinic, said many workers fear complaining about sexual assault will result in them losing their job or even being forced to leave the country.

“We’ve had lots of circumstances where employees are really afraid that if they come forward and report an abusive employer, the abusive employer will just report them and try to get them deported,” Cliplef said.

Cliplef runs the centre’s Respect at Work Legal Clinic, which is specifically funded to assist migrant workers and newcomers who are survivors of sexual assault and harassment. Since 2019, she said, the clinic has taken on the cases of more than 150 survivors of sexual assault, including many farmworkers.

Often, Cliplef said, those workers worry that making a complaint will cost them their job and any future employment in Canada.

Such workers are hired on seasonal contracts and are often from countries with much higher rates of poverty and unemployment than Canada.

In many cases, Weiler said, workers’ wages provide for an entire family back home, meaning they are under “tremendous pressure” to keep their jobs.

“For immigration purposes, they’re worried that if they have a complaint against their employer on the record, it will affect their future,” Cliplef said.

She said workers sometimes seek justice through other channels. Some make complaints to the province’s Employment Standards Branch, for example, or through the BC Human Rights Tribunal, neither of which has a policy of alerting immigration officials to undocumented workers. But those forums, Cliplef noted, are not set up to deal with allegations of sexual assault.

The process is even more difficult for workers who are undocumented.

Perla Villegas is an outreach worker with Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture, one of many agencies in the Okanagan set up to help the growing number of migrant farmworkers in the region.

Villegas said she has personally handled at least four cases of migrant women who were sexually assaulted by their employers.

All wanted to go to the police, Villegas said, but were unwilling to in the end because they were undocumented and feared officials would force them to leave the country.

Villegas said RCMP officers informed her that they could not guarantee border officials would not deport the women.

“They always want to report. But when I told them that there is a small risk for immigration officers to know about this, they say, ‘I am not willing to report,’” Villegas said.

Valdés, in his statement, said the Mexican government believes such cases “represent a challenging situation for our migrant workers.”

“We would like to see more inspections performed by proper authorities to these farms, especially in the Okanagan,” Valdés said.

Weiler argues the federal government should end closed work permits, something Immigration Minister Marc Miller recently hinted is on the table. Open work permits, Weiler argues, could allow workers to switch jobs away from abusive employers and better protect themselves.

Cliplef believes workers who are targets of sexual abuse should also be able to apply for visas for victims of human trafficking — something she said migrant farmworkers cannot do, since they enter the country through legal means.

Villegas argues there should also be special exemptions for undocumented workers, protecting them from deportation when they are reporting serious crimes like sexual assault. 

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