It is unclear whether NB employers will be affected by alleged abuse of foreign employees Pipa News


It is unclear whether NB employers will be affected by alleged abuse of foreign employees

The federal government is reviewing a report outlining precarious working conditions for temporary foreign workers in the New Brunswick fish processing industry, but it’s not clear if specific employers will be affected.

Meanwhile, an industry representative says the report doesn’t reflect his experience and puts the onus on investigators to name 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, funded by Cooper Institute and the Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Center, 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 adequately trained to handle hazardous equipment.

The Lobster Processors Association in New Brunswick disputes the veracity of the report. (Kayla Hounsell/CBC)

Carla Qualtrough, the federal minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, said in a statement that the study’s findings are “troubling.”

“All allegations of this nature are being reviewed and acted upon. If criminal activity is suspected, the information will be forwarded to law enforcement,” she said.

Qualtrough’s office did not confirm whether any specific investigation was launched by the report. The report did not name workplaces to protect the identities of those interviewed, some of whom still work in New Brunswick and fear reprisal.

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

“What is depicted in that report is nowhere near the reality of our industry,” he said.

Nat Richard of the Lobster Processors Association says the report does not reflect his experience of how temporary foreign workers are treated. (CBC)

The report said workers would speak only on the condition of strict anonymity, and few will ever speak out against employers for fear of being deported or not being invited back to work next season.

“If that’s true, I can’t approve of that,” said Richard.

When asked what role his association plays in responding to the issues raised in the report, he said he would like to hear directly from the researchers.

“If they would like to contact me to identify who these employers are, I will be happy to put them in touch with the responsible federal authorities so that these matters can be looked at more closely,” he said.

A woman with long brown hair laughs.
Raluca Bejan, lead author of the report, said the names of the employers mentioned by some employees will not be revealed. (Dalhousie University)

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

She said one member of the team speaks Spanish, which 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 the interviews they collected to compile the report.

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

“We can’t destroy people’s livelihoods with that.”

“We are not disclosing the names of the employers and the locations because some people want to go back to the same workplaces.”

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

A spokesman for Qualtrough’s office said threatening deportation, failing to adequately inform workers about health and safety regulations and failing to properly communicate health insurance details are all considered violations of the temporary foreign worker program.

She said investigations are launched by direct complaints from employees, as well as from advocacy groups or news outlets.

Usually specific employer names are required to start an investigation, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. She said the 24/7 tip line is still operational and employees can always go to advocacy groups and ask them to file complaints on their behalf.

The government has modified the program since researchers conducted the interviews to require employers to make sure the people they hire aren’t paying recruiters who charge thousands of dollars to help employees secure contracts.

The government is also working with the provinces and territories on a national housing standards strategy for the program’s low-wage stream.

‘There is absolutely no obligation … to return’

Richard said the fact that some workers return year after year proves the report wrong.

“These workers have absolutely no obligation to return to the same processing facility year after year, and the vast majority of them do,” he said.

When asked if that’s because some workers have no other choice, Richard said working in the fish processing industry isn’t easy and employers pay several dollars more than the $13.75 provincial minimum wage.

“Many of these workers tell me they make more in Canada in an hour than in their home country in an entire day, assuming they can even find a job,” he said.

“We desperately need these workers in our industry…I think we need to have a little bit more of a reasonable debate about this, not lump everyone together. Understand that most employers work very hard to provide decent, safe and hospitable provide workplaces.”