They are far from home and have paid considerable sums to work in Canada, yet once here, many say they have to contend with threats, long hours, overcrowded accommodations, low pay and unsafe working conditions, according to new findings by researchers at Dalhousie University.
Temporary foreign workers (TFWs) travelled to Canada by the thousands during the pandemic to fill roles in the seafood and agriculture sectors that are vital to the national food supply.
Research out of Dalhousie looking at the seafood processing industry in New Brunswick suggests they did so at great expense for jobs that were physically grueling, sometimes dangerous and offered little financial compensation.
"We discovered that the occupational conditions of low-wage migrant workers in the seafood industry are much more precarious than what we have seen so far in the region," says Raluca Bejan, an assistant professor of Social Work at Dalhousie and lead author of a new report on the issue.
"We also found that the pandemic exacerbated workers’ precarious working and living conditions."
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A grim picture
The report was based on hour-long interviews with 15 TFWs who arrived in New Brunswick after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Fourteen people were working in the seafood processing sector and one was employed as a mushroom picker. Thirteen were Mexican nationals and two were Filipino.
Participants were asked about their recruitment to Canada and about the working conditions during COVID-19, such as social distancing measures, self-isolation and quarantine periods. Participants were also asked about health and safety protocols related to COVID-19 when travelling to Canada as well as at work.
Dr. Bejan says their responses paint a grim picture.
"Harassment and verbal abuse, yelling, dangerous working conditions, washroom breaks deducted from paycheques, fear, employer threats of deportation, limited training and low pay," she says.
One worker described an environment that left many workers on edge.
"The atmosphere was very tense. Offensive. The man yelled at me in front of everyone several times. One time I ran out of the company crying because I couldn't deal with so much shame and humiliation," they said.
They also described cramped and cold accommodations, with up to 20 people living in one house, limited space for food and unsuitable beds that left some sleeping on the floor.
"This house was unfurnished, it did not have a bed, it did not have a microwave, it did not have a sofa, it was very dirty. It had nothing," said one worker.
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Improving protections for workers
Dr. Bejan and her team found that the workers paid recruitment fees of up to $2,000, earned $13 per hour and made just $300 a week. Some paid about $300 per month for lodging, with one person paying $11,000 to secure a work contract in New Brunswick.
Many too said they missed their families and felt like outsiders in their work communities.
"The bad part is the family, you miss them. Your heart leaves when you speak with them. They say to you, 'Daddy, come back now,'" one migrant worker said.
The report includes 12 recommendations for the federal and provincial governments that are aimed at improving protections for this workforce. They range from granting permanent residence on arrival and offering open work permits so workers can change employers in cases of abuse to ensuring workers have access to safe, affordable housing and making sure they can access health insurance.
"This program cannot be only a one-way street — beneficial for Canada and Canadian industry only," says Dr. Bejan. "Canada has an obligation to look after migrant workers, especially since the seafood processing industry constitutes 30 per cent of Canada’s GDP in the marine sector."
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