Francisco Javier Montaño de Dios says he worked seven weeks of the 17 weeks he's been in New Brunswick and expected two more months of work. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)
Temporary foreign workers who lost weeks of work during a slow lobster season are speaking out against a Canadian system that bars them from finding other jobs when the employer who hired them has nothing for them to do.
Lobster processing workers in New Brunswick are struggling this year with low catch and a weather-shortened season.
When there's no lobster to process, local New Brunswick employees have employment insurance, savings and other work. The hundreds of temporary foreign workers brought to work in fish plants have to just sit and wait, said worker Francisco Javier Montaño de Dios.
"We go hungry," he said in Spanish.
Montaño de Dios was speaking 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 they would work in New Brunswick and send money back to their families. But of the 17 weeks he's been in New Brunswick, he's had just seven weeks of work.
The majority of New Brunswick's 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 back to his wife and child in Mexico.
Of the 80 workers from Mexico and Phillipines hired by Lebreton Fisheries, the majority have already left — two months before their contract was to end. While the plant has closed, Montaño de Dios said, he's staying to advocate being given the chance to work, which he came to Canada to do.
"I'm doing this for my family," Montaño de Dios said.
The federal temporary foreign worker program gives workers a closed work permit, which means when they come to Canada they're only allowed to work with the employer who hired them.
New Brunswick's fishing and farming industries rely on temporary workers to take on the seasonal work in a lucrative industry.
The foreign workers at Lebreton Fisheries signed a contract that guarantees them "an average" of 30 hours a week of work. Frustrated with having no work for several weeks, they sent a letter to management on July 28 asking they get paid even for off weeks.
"Since July 5, 2023, we have not been working at all, as a consequence we have not been able to pay our bills, to feed ourselves or take care of our families," the letter said. "This situation has created stress and anxiety among all of us."
Niger Saravia works with Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and is based in Miramichi. He says because workers are not allowed to find other jobs, they're struggling to make ends meet. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)
In response, the company sent a letter saying it would cover the return flight home for anyone who wanted to leave early and the 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 contract for the next year," the letter said.
Many of the workers have left or are on their way home, but Montaño de Dios said handful are hoping to stay for the rest of their contract and try to find work.
Montaño de Dios said he fears he lost out on the rest of the season because he spoke out during meetings with the employer.
Kathlin Lebreton, who runs Lebreton Fisheries, said the offer to fly the workers home was not a reprisal for anyone speaking out. He made the offer because he's had to shut down two months early.
"It's equal for local and foreign workers," he said. "Both of them have [done] the same hours this year. It's very poor year."
Employers want the same thing
Lebreton said he can't pay workers when there's no work, even ones who have no other option. He said the solution lies with the federal government, and he has asked several times for flexibility for seasonal foreign workers
"Not only us, all the fish plants have the same problem … they have the same struggle, and they're all talking to Immigration, that we should be more open," he said.
He said he doesn't understand why the rules can't be changed. "It would be so easy."
A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said it wouldn't be able to answer CBC questions on Tuesday.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said that if the government finds proof of abuse, the worker is given an open work permit.
That's the only flexibility in the temporary worker arrangement.
Niger Saravia of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change said his organization has been helping the Lebreton employees get information.
Saravia said employees have told him they've had to find informal work to make ends meet.
"Cleaning or cutting grass in order to get me a little bit of money to buy some food," he said.
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 lull in the season, it also gives the employer all the power. Workers would rely on that company to help them find housing, stay in the country and come back in following years.
As a result, Saravia said, workers don't feel able to speak up, or even call in sick, for fear they will be sent home or won't be called back by their employer.
Employees are allowed to switch employers mid-contract, but workers can only join an employer that has already done a labour market assessment and has room to hire them.
To get approval, employers have to pay the government a fee of about $1,000 per worker they want to hire, months in advance, and the assessments have to be renewed each 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, he said.
In May, researchers with Dalhousie University, St. Thomas University, Cooper Institute and the Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre released a report outlining issues of racism, abuse and untenable living conditions faced by some seafood processing temporary workers.
The researchers called for reforms specifically to the low-paying temporary foreign worker program.
The federal government has recognized this problem, and in the fall of 2022 updated regulations to prohibit reprisals and charging recruitment fees, to deter "bad actors." It has also set up a tip line workers can use to report abuse.
Montaño de Dios said he feels his only option, since he can't get an open work permit, is to speak up.