Unclear whether N.B. employers will face consequences over alleged abuse of foreign workers

The majority of New Brunswick's temporary foreign workers, more than 2,000, work in seafood processing. (CBC - image credit)
The majority of New Brunswick's temporary foreign workers, more than 2,000, work in seafood processing. (CBC - image credit)

The federal government is reviewing a report outlining precarious working conditions for temporary foreign workers in New Brunswick's seafood processing industry, but it's not clear if any specific employers will face repercussions.

Meanwhile an industry representative says the report does not reflect to his experience, and lays the responsibility on the researchers to produce names of offending employers.

On Wednesday, researchers from Dalhousie and St. Thomas universities released a report based on interviews with low-wage temporary foreign workers in New Brunswick in 2020 and 2021.

The report, done in partnership with the Cooper Institute and the Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre, includes first-person descriptions of cramped housing and verbal abuse.

Some workers said they were told "it's not a good idea to get sick," were reprimanded for calling an ambulance for a colleague, and felt they were not trained adequately to handle dangerous equipment.

Kayla Hounsell/CBC
Kayla Hounsell/CBC

Carla Qualtrough, the federal minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, said in a statement the study's findings are "disturbing."

"All allegations of this nature are reviewed and acted upon. If criminal activity is suspected, the information is forwarded to law enforcement agencies," she said.

Qualtrough's office did not confirm whether a specific investigation was triggered by the report. The report did not name any workplaces in order to protect the identity of the interviewees, some of whom still work in New Brunswick and fear reprisals.

In an interview Thursday, Nat Richard, executive director of the Lobster Processors Association in New Brunswick, said the report relies on the first-hand experiences of 14 people out of more than 2,000, and that makes it inaccurate.

"What is portrayed in that report is nowhere close to the reality of our industry," he said.


The report said workers would only speak on conditions of strict anonymity, and few ever speak out against employers because they fear deportation or not being invited back to work next season.

"If that is true, I cannot condone that," Richard said.

When asked what role his association has in responding to the issues raised by the report, he said he would be happy to hear from the researchers directly.

"If they want to reach out to me and identify who these employers are, I will gladly put them in touch with the responsible federal authorities so these cases can be looked at more carefully," he said.

Dalhousie University
Dalhousie University

The report's lead author Raluca Bejan, who is an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University, said researchers spent months trying to find workers willing to speak.

She said a member of the team speaks Spanish, and that helped them gain the trust of the Mexican community. They were able to interview 15 people, she said, one of whom worked as a mushroom picker and the rest worked in seafood processing. She said researchers used all of the interviews they gathered to compile the report.

Research ethics and their policies dictate that they can't reveal identifying information of those who agreed to be interviewed, Bejan said.

"We cannot destroy people's livelihoods by doing that."

"We won't reveal the name of the employers and the locations because some people want to go back to the same workplaces."

She said even if the employers are identified, she believes the problem lies with the program itself. She said it does not have adequate protections, especially when it comes to housing standards.

A spokesperson for Qualtrough's office said threatening deportation, not adequately informing workers of health and safety regulation and not properly communicating healthcare insurance details are all considered to be contravening the temporary foreign worker program.

She said investigations are triggered by direct complaints from workers, but also from advocacy groups or news reports.

Typically, specific employer names are needed to start an investigation, but that doesn't mean it won't take place. She said the 24/7 tip line is still operational, and workers can always go to advocacy groups and ask them to make complaints on their behalf.

The government has amended the program since researchers conducted the interviews to require employers to make certain the people they hire did not pay recruiters who charge thousands of dollars to help workers secure contracts.

The government is also working on a national housing standards strategy for the low-wage stream of the program, alongside the provinces and territories.

'There's absolutely no obligation ... to return'

Richard said the fact that some workers come back year after year proves the report is not accurate.

"There's absolutely no obligation on the part of these workers to return to the same processing facility year after year, and the vast majority of them do," he said.

When asked whether that may be because some workers have no other option, Richard said working in seafood processing isn't easy, and employers pay several dollars more than the provincial minimum wage of $13.75.

"A lot of these workers tell me they make more in an hour in Canada than they would in their home countries over a whole day, assuming they can even find employment," he said.

"We need these workers desperately in our industry … I think we need to have a little bit more of a reasonable debate about this, not tar everybody with the same brush. Understand that most employers do work very hard to provide decent and safe and welcoming workplaces."