Migrant workers awarded more than $23K from N.S. seafood company

Workers are seen at Ocean Pride's sea cucumber harvesting and processing facility. The Nova Scotia Labour Board has ordered the Lower Wedgeport company to pay a group of migrant workers more than $23,000. (Oceanpridefisheries.com - image credit)
Workers are seen at Ocean Pride's sea cucumber harvesting and processing facility. The Nova Scotia Labour Board has ordered the Lower Wedgeport company to pay a group of migrant workers more than $23,000. (Oceanpridefisheries.com - image credit)

A group of eight migrant workers from Mexico has been awarded a total of more than $23,000 in lost compensation from a seafood company based in southwest Nova Scotia.

In a decision from the Nova Scotia Labour Board released on June 14, chair Jasmine Walsh ordered Lower Wedgeport-based Ocean Pride Fisheries Ltd. to compensate the workers for deductions from their wages, missing hours, and pay that should have been provided in lieu of notice of termination.

The workers first filed complaints in September 2021 and the director of labour standards ruled in their favour in October 2023. That decision, however, was appealed by Ocean Pride in November of that year.

"The respondent employees described many hardships that they experienced while working for Ocean Pride including workplace injuries and unfavourable working and living conditions," Walsh wrote in her decision.

"These allegations are distressing, and they underscore the need to ensure the regulation of employment standards for vulnerable foreign workers who are in Canada temporarily."

Workers say they were terminated

The workers had previously been employed for multiple seasons by Ocean Pride, a harvester, processor and exporter of sea cucumbers. Their employment came to an end in September 2021. One of the key issues, according to the decision, was that the company claimed the workers had quit, while the workers alleged they were terminated without notice after they tried to talk to Ocean Pride about their working conditions.

"On Sept. 10, 2021, a series of events occurred after which the eight respondent employees, as well as five others who are not involved in this matter, were no longer employed by Ocean Pride," the decision reads.

"The board is not persuaded, on a balance of probabilities, that the respondent employees resigned."

The decision said there were also concerns about whether deductions from the workers' wages, including immigration fees, supplies and rent, were in keeping with the Labour Standards Code. As well, there was the question of Ocean Pride's compliance with the code with regard to maintaining the terms of employment for recruiting foreign workers.

Ocean Pride maintained the pay decisions were "appropriate" and that they held to the terms and conditions of the employment of the group, though the company "concedes that it was responsible" to cover their travel expenses, said the decision.

Stacey Gomez, the executive director of the Centre for Migrant Worker Rights Nova Scotia, said in an interview the organization supported four of the workers in applying last year for what's known as an open work permit for vulnerable workers. The permit helps protect the rights of migrant workers by allowing them to leave an abusive workplace and find a new job.

Gomez said the labour board decision sends a message to the thousands of other migrant workers in Nova Scotia that they do have recourse when they have complaints.

"This case is very important because … migrant workers face so many barriers to make complaints like this," she said. "They can be easily fired, sent back to their home country and not able to come back to Canada to work again. Current [migrant] workers are aware of those risks that they face when they have labour issues. And so that's a careful decision."

Response from Ocean Pride Fisheries Ltd.

In a statement to CBC News, Jules LeBlanc, president of Ocean Pride Fisheries (OPF), wrote that the employees named in the decision "had never told Ocean Pride Fisheries Ltd. that they had issues or concerns with regards to their employment."

"In fact, most of the employees were repeat TFW (temporary foreign workers) who had asked OPF to hire their friends and family members," he added.

"The labour board decided that these employees did not quit but were instead 'fired' because OPF spoke with only the group spokesperson and not with each individual TFW employee."

LeBlanc went on to say an investigation into Ocean Pride's operations was opened in September 2021 and it was found compliant in several key aspects including working conditions, wages and providing an abuse-free workplace, among other areas.

"Ocean Pride Fisheries Ltd. treats all employees with the utmost respect," LeBlanc wrote, but with the labour board's ruling, the company now believes that "businesses in Nova Scotia should proceed with utmost caution when considering the costs, benefits, and risks of hiring versus finding automation solutions."

Elizabeth Wozniak, an immigration lawyer with North Star Immigration Law in Halifax, told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon on Tuesday the labour board's decision is important in two ways: the penalty was significant, and it's a reminder to all employers that the temporary foreign workers program doesn't allow them to cut corners or make things cheaper.

"Imagine workers coming here. You know, they're on closed permits so they can only work for one employer, they're living in accommodations provided by the employer, they often don't speak English or French fluently, so of course the employer has obligations that need to be crystal clear because the workers are incredibly vulnerable," Wozniak said.

Wozniak was not involved in the case, but said generally speaking, recruitment fees cannot be recovered. Employers, if there are going to be expenses such as equipment, must be clear in the contract — which needs to be in English, French and the worker's language.

Next steps for migrant workers

Gomez said since the board released its decision, the Centre for Migrant Worker Rights Nova Scotia has requested the document in Spanish so it can be fully understood by the workers.

She said this case highlights specific vulnerabilities faced by migrant workers, namely housing and health care, which are tied to their employment status.

More broadly, Gomez said the case is a part of larger issues facing temporary foreign workers, issues that need to be addressed to improve their working conditions.

"It's a fair decision from our perspective, but we do know that more needs to be done by the Nova Scotia government and also the federal government to uphold migrant worker rights," she said.