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HomeCanadaBreaking:: Slow lobster season in N.B. prompts early departures and wage cuts...

Breaking:: Slow lobster season in N.B. prompts early departures and wage cuts for temporary foreign workers


Francisco Javier Montaño de Dios says he worked seven weeks out of the 17 he was in New Brunswick and expected two more months of work at the lobster processing plant. (CBC/Canadian Press)

Temporary foreign workers who lost weeks of work during a slow lobster season are speaking out against a Canadian system that prevents them from finding other jobs when the employer who hired them has nothing to do.

Lobster workers in New Brunswick are struggling this year with a low catch and a weather-shortened season.

When there’s no lobster to process, local New Brunswick employees have job insurance, savings and other jobs. The hundreds of temporary foreign workers brought in to work at the fishing plants simply have to sit and wait, said worker Francisco Javier Montaño de Dios.

“We go hungry,” he said in Spanish.

Montaño de Dios spoke on behalf of his colleagues at Lebreton Fisheries, a lobster processing plant near Tracadie-Sheila.

He said the workers left their home countries with the expectation of working in New Brunswick and sending money back to their families. But out of the 17 weeks she’s been in New Brunswick, she’s only had seven weeks of work.

A person wearing gloves stands in front of a shellfish container.
Most New Brunswick temporary foreign workers work in seafood processing, forestry, and construction. (CBC)

Montaño de Dios is not allowed by law to work anywhere else and has been unable to send money to his wife and son in Mexico.

Of the 80 workers from Mexico and the Philippines hired by Lebreton Fisheries, most have already left, two months before the end of their contract. Although the plant closed, Montaño de Dios said he is staying to advocate for the opportunity to work, for which he came to Canada.

“I’m doing this for my family,” Montaño de Dios said.

The federal temporary foreign worker program grants workers a closed work permit, which means that when they come to Canada they are only allowed to work with the employer that hired them.

New Brunswick’s fishing and agricultural industries rely on seasonal workers to perform seasonal work in a lucrative industry.

The foreign workers at Lebreton Fisheries signed a contract that guarantees them “an average” of 30 hours of work per week. Frustrated that they had been without work for several weeks, they sent a letter to management on July 28 asking to be paid even for the weeks off.

“Since July 5, 2023 we have not worked at all, as a result of which we have not been able to pay our bills, feed ourselves or care for our families,” the letter said. “This situation has created stress and anxiety among all of us.”

medium shot of man
Niger Saravia works with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and is based in Miramichi. He says that since the workers are not allowed to find other jobs, they have a hard time making ends meet. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

In response, the company sent a letter saying it would cover the flight home of anyone who wanted to leave early and rent for the month of July and provide temporary loans.

“Due to the period of uncertainty in the industry, Lebreton cannot commit to any employment contracts for the coming year,” the letter said.

By the end of July, many of the workers had left or were on their way home, but Montaño de Dios said about 25 stayed, hoping the employer would honor their contract.

Employees held several meetings with management. The day after the last meeting, on August 17, they received a dismissal letter from the employer, citing a shortage of work.

Montaño de Dios said he fears he will lose the rest of the season because he spoke during meetings with the employer. He said that the day they received the letter, management took their work vehicles, which were their only means of transportation to the city from the employer-owned home where they live, three to a room.

Kathlin Lebreton, who runs Lebreton Fisheries, said the offer to take the workers home and the termination letter were not in retaliation for anyone who spoke up. She sent the letter because she had to close two months early.

“It’s the same for local and foreign workers,” he said. “Both have [done] the same hours this year. It’s a very poor year.”

Employers want the same

Lebreton said he can’t pay workers when there’s no work, even those who have no other choice. He said the solution lies with the federal government and has repeatedly called for flexibility for seasonal foreign workers.

“Not only us, all the fishing plants have the same problem…they have the same fight, and they are all talking to Immigration, so that we are more open,” he said.

He said he doesn’t understand why the rules can’t be changed. “It would be so easy.”

A spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada said he would not be able to answer the CBC’s questions on Tuesday.

A spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said that if the government finds evidence of abuse, the worker is given an open work permit.

That is the only flexibility in the temporary worker agreement.

Niger Saravia of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change said his organization has been helping Lebreton employees get information.

Saravia said employees have told her they have had to find informal work to make ends meet.

“Clean or cut grass to get a little money to buy some food,” he said.

A box of freshly caught lobster
A slow lobster season means fewer hours for lobster processing employees. But while locals can find other work, temporary foreign workers are not allowed. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada)

He said the current system not only limits what workers can do when there’s a break in the season, but also gives the employer all the power. Workers would trust that company to help them find housing, stay in the country, and return in subsequent years.

As a result, Saravia said, workers don’t feel able to speak up, or even call in sick, for fear they’ll be sent home or their employer won’t call them.

Employees can change employers mid-contract, but workers can only join an employer that has already conducted a labor market assessment and has room to hire them.

To get approved, employers have to pay the government a fee of about $1,000 per worker they want to hire, months in advance, and assessments must be renewed every year.

Lebreton said most employers try to be as conservative as possible and only apply for a limited number of workers. And smaller employers may not be able to afford the fees, she said.

In May, researchers from Dalhousie University, the University of St. Thomas, the Cooper Institute, and the Madhu Verma Center for Migrant Justice released a report outlining the problems of racism, abuse, and untenable living conditions facing some temporary workers. that process seafood.

The researchers specifically called for reforms to the low-paid temporary foreign worker program.

The federal government has recognized this problem and, in the fall of 2022, updated regulations to prohibit retaliation and the charging of recruitment fees, to deter “bad actors.” It has also created an information hotline that workers can use to report abuse.

Montaño de Dios said she feels her only option, since she can’t get an open work permit or make her employer honor her contract, is to speak up.

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