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'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 study by Dalhousie University.
A study by Dalhousie University says temporary foreign workers who came to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic to fill roles in the seafood and agriculture sectors endured low pay, long hours, overcrowded housing and limited access to health care. Workers do maintenance at an asparagus farming facility near Vittoria, Ont., in Norfolk County, on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

FREDERICTON — Temporary foreign workers in New Brunswick's seafood industry during the COVID-19 pandemic suffered gruelling and sometimes dangerous conditions, says a study by Dalhousie University.

Workers also endured low pay, long hours, overcrowded housing and limited access to health care, said the study, called "Unfree Labour: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in the Seafood Industry in New Brunswick."

"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 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 Canada has a responsibility toward migrant workers. 

"We're eating on the backs of these workers," she said in an interview Wednesday. 

A spokesman for New Brunswick's Labour Department said they were troubled to hear of the study. "As we are only just learning of this report, we will take time to review it before making any further comment," Paul Bradley said in an email.  

Interview requests to New Brunswick's workplace safety agency — WorkSafeNB — and to the Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries were not returned on Wednesday. Neither were requests to Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, the national association that speaks for Canada’s seafood farmers.

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. The study looked at how COVID-19 affected the health and work conditions of foreign workers.

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 added, 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 a cab home. It was just so, so exploitative."

Workers paid recruitment fees of up to $2,000, and earned about $300 a week, the study said. While most workers paid about $150 in rent every two weeks, it was common for them to live with as many as 10 to 20 others.

"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," Bejan said.

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 worker said 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." 

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 lack of access to health care. Employers provide private insurance to their employees, she said, adding most workers didn'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, both at the workplace and in the community, Bejan said. The study said employers sometimes saw "workers’ foreignness as justification for their mistreatment."

The study had 12 recommendations for the governments of Canada and New Brunswick, including that workers should be given open work permits instead of employer-specific ones so they can change jobs; access to safe, affordable and dignified housing; and be provided public health-care insurance.

Bejan said Canada is a rich country that can afford to give temporary seafood migrant workers better conditions. "I don't think if some protections are given to the workers, you're going to make the entire industry unprofitable."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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