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Carla Qualtrough, minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on Sept. 20, 2022. In a statement, the minister said the new report's findings are disturbing and describe contraventions of the temporary foreign workers program, which she vowed to review further and forward if necessary to RCMP.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A new report reveals rampant verbal abuse, dangerous working conditions, overcrowded housing and exploitative recruitment practices among migrants working in seafood plants in New Brunswick during the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when the industry saw record profits.

“We can’t have that in the 21st century,” said Raluca Bejan, an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University. Dr. Bejan is the lead author of the report, titled Unfree Labour, published by Migrant Workers in the Canadian Maritimes, a research group co-ordinated between Dalhousie, St. Thomas University and Cooper Institute. “This shouldn’t be happening any more … not in a country that prides itself on an international level in terms of human rights.”

Thousands of temporary foreign workers travelled to Canada during the pandemic to fill roles in the seafood and agriculture industry that are vital to the national food supply. A 2020 Globe and Mail report on migrant workers during the pandemic found lax oversight, poor communication and cramped, dirty conditions left migrant farm workers across Canada vulnerable to COVID-19, which was the cause of death for two Mexican men working on farms in Ontario.

The new report, based on interviews with 15 migrant workers who arrived in New Brunswick after the start of the pandemic in 2020, described a widespread atmosphere of verbal abuse and harassment in fish plants, a lack of health and safety training, few breaks during long shifts, and bosses who used threats of deportation to stop people from complaining about the working conditions.

Workers paid high recruitment fees – up to $11,000 – to secure a work permit. They were lodged in houses with up to 20 people, where some slept on the floor and had no access to hot water.

During the pandemic the number of migrant workers in New Brunswick doubled to 3,600 – the biggest increase of any Maritime province – with 60 per cent of them working in seafood processing, Dr. Bejan said.

In the same time span, New Brunswick made record profits on seafood, exporting $2.2-billion in seafood in 2021. More than half of that was lobster, the province’s top exported seafood product, according to government numbers.

“There’s a lot of money people are making on the backs of migrant workers,” Dr. Bejan said. “We’re also eating this food – who gives us the right to extract labour from other countries and benefit from this labour without actually providing the rights and benefits to the workers that they should have for doing this labour?”

The report makes 12 recommendations for governments, specifically calling on the federal government to establish minimum labour practice standards for provinces participating in the temporary foreign workers program and a regulatory regime for recruiters, among others.

In a statement, the federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough said the findings are disturbing and describe contraventions of the temporary foreign workers program, which she vowed to review further and forward if necessary to the RCMP. “The mistreatment and abuse of temporary foreign workers is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Ms. Qualtrough wrote.

She said employers of temporary foreign workers are required to maintain certain working conditions and to correct non-compliant activities, and that reprisal by employers against workers who come forward with complaints is prohibited.

“This is about basic human rights and dignity,” Ms. Qualtrough wrote, adding that employers can face monetary penalties of up to $1-million and a ban from the temporary workers program. “We know there is more work to do.“

She said the federal government has strengthened inspection processes and is working with temporary foreign worker organizations, employers and provincial governments to ensure that workers are protected. She said her office has expanded a tip line to provide services in more than 200 languages and is in the midst of creating national accommodation standards.

In response to the report, the New Brunswick government said migrant workers are a crucial and valuable part of the province’s labour force.

“Anytime we hear reports of this nature it is troubling, and we take them seriously,” wrote Paul Bradley, acting director of communications for Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour. Mr. Bradley said the New Brunswick government is reviewing the report before commenting on the recommendations.