When Muhammad Umar Naseem came to Canada from Pakistan in 2008, he believed his adopted country was founded on principles of fairness and equity.
His plan was simple: work hard here, get a university engineering degree and live out a dream unattainable back home.
“My dream was like, one day, I am going to be designing cars, and I am going to settle down in Canada and just live a happy life as everybody seems to live.”
He set about the task with hard work, earning a Masters degree in automotive engineering from the University of Windsor, with top grades.
But after graduation, the dream took a turn.
Unable to get a job in his field, he ended up working in a Toronto gas station, often more than 100 hours a week, all without being paid for thousands of hours of overtime, Naseem alleges in a $1.1-million civil suit against his former Petro-Canada boss, a fellow Pakistani Canadian named Shoyaib Khan. Khan operates a dozen stations in the GTA.
In the initial job interview, Khan “specifically told me that you could not get overtime but you would have to work longer hours,” Naseem, 31, said in a recent interview with the Star and Global 16×9. “Your availability should be 24/7. And there is no overtime, nothing. It made me like, really angry, depressed, weak, and this was not the Canada I thought it would be.”
During his employment with Khan between 2009 and 2015, Naseem worked an average of 105 hours a week as a cashier and later as a manager — 61 one of those in overtime, the claim alleges. That’s 11,570 hours of overtime pay he never received, totalling nearly $355,000, it says.
The allegations haven’t been proven in court.
Khan refused repeated requests for an interview. When reached by phone, he offered only this response to Naseem’s allegations: “I’m not saying it’s true or no, but I’m saying … people can say anything, right?”
In a statement of defence filed in court, Khan denies Naseem worked the hours he’s claiming. He says Naseem was neither required nor authorized to work them.
“The suggestion that the plaintiff has accrued overtime in the sum of $400,000 … as a retail sales manager strains the bounds of credibility and tenability,” it reads.
The statement of defence also alleges Naseem earned income on the side charging for parking on the gas station lot — an allegation Naseem denies — and that many of the hours Naseem says he was working were actually spent sleeping at the station.
Naseem “shared a cramped flat with two other people and often preferred to remove himself from his dwelling and stay or sleep in the gas station,” the statement of defence reads.
Naseem’s lawyer, David Whitten, calls the allegation “bizarre.”
Unlike most labour cases that weigh the word of an employer against that of an employee, Whitten said Naseem has documentary evidence supporting his allegations — time sheets and emails reviewed by the Star and Global 16×9 that show, on many occasions, 16-hour days and 100-hour weeks.
Six of Naseem’s former colleagues at Petro-Canada, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Naseem did work extensive overtime hours at the gas station. They also said it was understood that employees were not paid overtime.
Naseem says he didn’t realize for years that he was legally entitled to overtime pay, and claims Khan threatened to have him fired and deported when he finally complained — a claim Khan denies in his statement of defence.
“We were kind of like feeling we are slaves and he is the king,” says Naseem. “But what I realized is they are businessmen, they don’t have heart. They just care about money.”
Once Naseem took legal action, things got even more difficult.
In November of last year, a business associate of Khan contacted Naseem, along with his father in Pakistan, with warnings about Naseem’s safety, the statement of claim alleges.
The man “threatened Naseem that Petro-Canada would cause him ‘harm’” and “cryptically inquired what would happen if Naseem were to be found dead in his home.”
In an interview, Naseem says the warnings — to him and his father — left him shaken.
“That is the point I got scared,” he said. “Whenever I go outside . . . I am scared. My wife, she is at home and every time she calls me, ‘Where are you, tell me where.’”
Khan, in his statement of defence, denies sending anyone to threaten Naseem.
The man was “not authorized” to contact Naseem or his father in Pakistan “or to convey any kind of threat or intimidation,” it reads.
Naseem was fired last April, his claim alleges. His record of employment from Service Canada says “dismissal” was the reason for his departure from Khan’s employment and that he received $6,000 for “pay in lieu of notice.”
Khan’s defence says Naseem resigned and that the company paid him the $6,000 “gratuitously… without any obligation to do so.”
Terrified to speak out
When Naseem began working Khan in 2009, he was comforted to have a fellow Pakistani boss who understood the challenges faced by immigrants like him.
“I thought he’s going to guide me, he’s going to help me out,” Naseem recalls.
Five years later, Naseem says he had a very different realization: that he had been exploited.
“I was literally crying,” he recalls. “What am I getting? I worked like 200-some plus hours and I see a paycheque with 88 hours.”
Naseem says he stayed for so long because of Khan’s warning: “He told me that (with) my skin colour and background, it was going to be almost impossible for me to get another job.”
He never called the provincial labour ministry with his grievances about being denied overtime pay.
Like many new Canadians, unfamiliar with labour laws and dependent on their employment for their status in Canada, Naseem says he was terrified to speak out.
“If I picked up the phone, I was scared I am going to be deported.”
Faced with those options, many Ontario workers decide silence is preferable to blowing the whistle on workplace exploitation, experts say.
“The capacity to complain about mistreatment is completely undermined,” says Toronto labour lawyer Fay Faraday. “(It) puts them in an extreme power imbalance with their employer. If they want to remain in Canada, they have to do what that employer asks.”
While labour violations may be happening in silence, it’s clear they are happening with striking frequency, Ontario Ministry of Labour data show.
Between May and August of last year, the ministry targeted 304 employers in the GTA for unannounced inspections, and found 232 were in violation of the Employment Standards Act — a 76-per-cent failure rate.
Among the most common violations penalized: overtime pay, vacation pay, public holiday pay and excessive work hours.
Those results are typical of recent blitzes, says Faraday.
“That’s a serious problem.”
Labour Minister Kevin Flynn agrees.
“Eighty per cent isn’t a tolerable number, and shouldn’t be tolerable for anybody in this province,” he said in an interview.
Between 2006 and 2013, the government initiated an average of 390 prosecutions a year against employers accused of violating labour laws. Faraday believes those numbers only represent a sliver of the violations taking place, because most are not reported.
“The erosions of rights that we’re seeing are something that happen on quite a widespread basis,” said Faraday.
Minimum standards of working hours, minimum wage and overtime pay have been part of Ontario law for decades, but Faraday says employers have successfully lobbied for labour market changes that have left millions of workers vulnerable to exploitation.
“Right now in Ontario, about 40 per cent of jobs are non-standard, precarious forms of employment,” says Faraday.
She says employers who exploit workers disproportionately prey on ethnic minorities, women and students, groups of people who often need flexibility at work, may lack knowledge of labour laws and English language skills, or may have uncertain immigration status.
“The onus for enforcing lies overwhelmingly on the most vulnerable people in the system. Workers who are not unionized, who try to enforce their rights, often when they raise a complaint with their employer face termination.”
When Naseem’s eventual complaints to Khan about his paycheques fell on deaf ears, he took his grievances to a Petro-Canada employee.
“He did not even listen,” he says. “He said you have to talk to Mr. Khan.”
Petro-Canada is owned by Calgary-based Suncor Energy. In an email, Suncor told the Star and 16×9 that its franchisees are “contractually obligated” to follow labour laws, but added that its franchisees are independent business owners, and that matters related to labour standards are between the ministry and franchisees.
Currently, only 40 proactive enforcement officers are charged with monitoring the province’s nearly 450,000 employers. Last year, they conducted 2,477 inspections, ministry data shows. At that rate, it would take those 40 inspectors 181 years to inspect every employer in the province.
“Is 40 people enough?” says Flynn. “You really wonder some days if it is, when you look at the size of the province. But I think we’ve got very well trained inspectors. And we’re hiring.”
Despite the efforts of inspectors, Flynn admits labour conditions in the province are deteriorating in some sectors. He’s ordered a review of the enforcement system and is promising reforms are on the way.
Even when the province does take action, the penalties can lack teeth.
One of Khan’s Petro Canada stations was found guilty of violating provincial law covering statutory holiday pay in 2013.
The penalty: a $360 fine. That same day, Naseem’s time sheet shows he worked 16 hours.
“I was expecting … in Canada nobody could do that kind of thing,” says Naseem.