'Unfree labour': N.B. seafood foreign workers faced awful conditions, study says
FREDERICTON — Temporary foreign workers in New Brunswick's seafood industry during the COVID-19 pandemic suffered gruelling and sometimes dangerous conditions, says a new study by Dalhousie University.
The study, called "Unfree Labour: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in the Seafood Industry in New Brunswick," said workers also endured low pay, long hours, overcrowded housing and limited access to health care.
"Even though temporary foreign workers are an indispensable part of the seafood processing industry, our research found that employers treated workers as if they were doing them a favour by employing them," said the report published Wednesday.
"Yet without temporary foreign workers, the seafood processing industry would simply be unprofitable."
Fisheries and Oceans Canada last year said the country's seafood exports were worth $8.8 billion in 2021, a 36 per cent increase over 2020 and an 18 per cent increase over the previous high in 2019.
Lead author Raluca Bejan, an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie, said the seafood industry "couldn't survive" without temporary foreign workers. "We have a responsibility toward them," she said in an interview Wednesday.
"We're eating on the backs of these workers."
Interview requests to New Brunswick's workplace safety agency — WorkSafeNB — and to the Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries were not immediately returned Wednesday.
Researchers for the study, published on the online platform Migrant Workers in the Canadian Maritimes, interviewed 15 foreign workers who arrived in New Brunswick after the start of the pandemic in 2020. Workers paid recruitment fees of up to $2,000, earned $13 per hour and made $300 a week, the study said.
Bejan said that while overcrowding is a perennial issue in foreign worker housing, the conditions in New Brunswick surprised researchers. Workers described problems such as crammed, dirty housing with limited space to refrigerate and cook food, no internet access, low water pressure and insufficient heating, she said.
"We didn't expect it to be such a major finding."
Workers, she said, lived in remote areas and had to rely on their employers for transportation — even to the grocery store.
"They were taken there once a week," Bejan said. "They're only allowed one hour to do the shopping. Oftentimes, some of them, if they would take more than one hour, they'll come out of the store and the car was gone. They had to take home a cab. It was just so, so exploitative."
Most workers paid about $150 in rent every two weeks, and it was common for them to live with as many as 10 to 20 others, she said.
"It's problematic in a country like Canada that prides itself on values of human rights and multiculturalism and a very strong immigration system also, to have these conditions in the 21st century."
Workers also faced employer abuse, which she said included deportation threats.
A worker, the report said, "detailed how their supervisor would continually miscount their lobster weight to avoid paying them their bonuses."
Another talked about having their breaks monitored by management. "For instance, If I went to the bathroom, they deducted (from the paycheque) the time I was in the bathroom," a worker said in the study.
Some companies allegedly harassed employees into working overtime, and when they refused, management "would investigate you or go to your house or watch you, ask you where you were or what you were doing, it was exhausting," the study said.
Another study participant commented that their situation "was practically being like a modern slave."
Foreign workers, Bejan said, described how they were shown to use seafood-shelling machines "for a few minutes or a few hours" and asked to sign a form stating they had been trained. They were "very afraid to use that machine," she said.
"Imagine you work for minimum wage, but you're also afraid that you're going to chop a finger off," Bejan said.
One worker said their employer threatened to limit their access to work for companies in other Maritime provinces, the study said.
"He said that the majority of the employers from here — the fish plants and seafood plants — they’re all family here in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island," a worker said in the study, referring to their employer. "He said, 'If someone applies, I will tell them myself to not give work to them.'"
Bejan said workers also detailed a lack of access to health care. Employers provide private insurance to their employees, she said, adding that most workers don't know how to use it. The study described one worker's fears about accessing medical care after a colleague fell sick from a lobster allergy.
"We actually had to call an ambulance once," a worker said in the study. "A colleague was having tachycardia (fast heart rate) due to the smell of the lobster … We got scolded because we called the ambulance. We got reprimanded."
Another issue faced by workers was racism and xenophobia, Bejan said. The study said employers sometimes saw "workers’ foreignness as justification for their mistreatment."
"Work, work, work, and faster, and faster, and faster, and you don’t rest a minute, and (they) control the work constantly and (they) prohibit you even to go out to the bathroom,” a worker said in the study.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2023.
Hina Alam, The Canadian Press