Foreign workers at N.B. seafood plants face threats, cramped quarters and racism, study finds

Lobster and other seafood feed a multibillion-dollar industry in New Brunswick. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Lobster and other seafood feed a multibillion-dollar industry in New Brunswick. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Four people, sleeping in one room, wake up early to line up to use washrooms they share with a dozen others.

They take a two-hour bus ride to work at a New Brunswick seafood plant, making several stops, when a straight drive would have taken 15 minutes.

At a lobster processing plant, they stand in one place for 10 hours, facing dangerous, finger-crushing machinery with little training and can only nod when a supervisor screams abuse at them.

According to a new report, the situation faced by temporary foreign workers in New Brunswick is precarious.

Nat Richard, a spokesperson for lobster-processing plants, dismissed the report, saying it unfairly discredited the industry based on a small number of interviews with workers.

"New Brunswick processing plants are subject to extremely rigorous controls and inspections," he said Wednesday.

Work the industry relies on

The workers' experience is compiled from interviews with 14 temporary foreign workers in the province's seafood industry, and one hired to be a mushroom picker.

The workers spoke under conditions of anonymity to researchers from Dalhousie University, St. Thomas University,  Cooper Institute and the Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre.

The report, released Wednesday, includes accounts of exploitation, racism, and threats of deportation, all affecting people paid $13 an hour to do work on which the industry relies.

"They pay us … the minimum wage, the lowest you can afford," one worker told the researchers.

"Because we're doing the work that a lot of Canadians don't want to do, well, be fair with the payment. I will not say that they have to pay us the same as some Canadians, but well, come closer, right?"

At the end of their shifts, some workers suspect their supervisor of under-weighing the meat they processed to avoid paying them a bonus, said the report, which does not identify the plants or their locations.

And the workers need the bonus to pay back more than $1,000 a recruiter charged each of them to help with the paperwork that got them to New Brunswick.

No visitors allowed

Back in their rural housing, the workers line up again to wash the smell of seafood off. Some of them want to invite friends over, but don't, because they fear their boss will find out and scold them.

The boss is their landlord and forbids visitors.

Raluca Bejan, the study's lead author and assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University, said overall, working and living conditions in New Brunswick are "much more precarious," than what the researchers found in a similar study in Prince Edward Island.

"Here we have 10, 20 people living in one accommodation ... for the most part unsuitable," she said.

One worker lived in an unfurnished apartment and could not buy any furniture or appliances, except a second-hand microwave, the report said.


The worker slept "on the floor, just like that. [I] bought some blankets. A friend gave me a blanket and I bought another one, and that's how I stayed."

Most housing also had little hot water, low temperatures, and no internet access, Bejan said.

"Also housing tends to be very isolated. So workers have no way to go to a grocery store," she said.

The workers have to rely on their employers, some of whom dock paycheques for a van trip to the supermarket, Bejan said.

On these trips, they have one hour to shop, a worker said.

"Many times, you go out, and the van isn't there. They left you there. And you must get a taxi to your home."

Bejan said the researchers also found a lot more "verbal abuse and yelling" compared to P.E.I.

The workers were all interviewed after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.

The report says the pandemic exacerbated problems that already existed, but the fear of foreign workers bringing in the virus made some issues worse, such as employers being unreasonably strict.

The report also says some workers felt they weren't equipped with enough personal protective equipment, and some had to buy their own cleaning supplies.

Several workers said they experienced racism and xenophobia, both from their employers as well as the wider community.

Some workers said they feel they're treated differently because they're foreign, and noticed preferential treatment to their Canadian counterparts. Some also recounted insults hurled from cars and being called "damn Mexicans," while trying to shop at a store.

One worker said they don't mind the long hours and difficult work, because it's the job, but it's all made almost impossible to manage because of the difficult living conditions.

Since the pandemic, the number of temporary workers has been growing "exponentially," Bejan said. In 2019, the province had around 1,600 temporary foreign workers.

At the end of 2022, there were around 3,600 temporary workers, 60 per cent of them coming from the low-wage stream and supplying the seafood industry.

What about government regulations?

Bejan said the researchers studied the low-wage stream of temporary foreign workers, mostly from Mexico and Philippines, which is the least regulated of the three streams.

Other streams, which bring in agricultural workers for example, have housing standards such as no more than two people per room. In this program, there is no such rule.

"There are a lot of things like that, which I think can be quickly remediated by introducing more regulations and guidelines," Bejan said.

The report asks the federal government to grant permanent residency to the workers, abolish employee-specific work permits that prevent workers from speaking up out of fear of deportation, establish minimum labour standards, ensure access to safe housing and create bilateral agreements with the countries that most of the workers come from.

The recommendations to the provincial government are similar, but include specifically strengthening the Employment Standards Act to protect workers from abuse, removing barriers to unionization, and providing health insurance and legal aid.

Carla Qualtrough, the federal minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, declined a request for an interview Wednesday.

The New Brunswick government said it is still reviewing the report but issued a statement saying anyone with concerns about their workplace should report them to the employment standards branch.

"Anytime we hear stories or reports of this nature it is troubling," said Paul Bradley, spokesperson for the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour.

Bejan said that when it comes to employers, there's no disagreement that their primary aim is to make a profit.

"The state needs to jump in and put some regulations so the employers behave," she said.