Fisheries Workers, Cut for Organizing, File Labor Board Charges
A hundred immigrant seafood processing workers in New Bedford, Massachusetts, lost their jobs March 31 when their employer abruptly terminated its contract with the temp agency that placed them. Workers say it was retaliation for organizing.
Their fight will be a test case of new protections for immigrants who organize on the job. The company invited the fired workers to apply for their old jobs, but only a handful were actually rehired.
“When the workers got the news, they started crying, worried about how they are going to pay their rent and bills,” said Ruth Castro, who has worked for five years at the plant and almost 20 years in the industry. “I felt so sad that when I got home all the tears I held back poured out of me.”
At the job site, though, Castro remained dogged. She rallied the workers and proposed a march on the company bosses. “What they did isn’t just. They are playing with the livelihoods of us workers,” she said in Spanish.
Forty workers marched into the Eastern Fisheries processing plant on April 3 to deliver a letter to upper management—demanding that it reconsider using E-verify to screen workers for eligibility to work in the U.S. and alleging that the reverification was retaliation for exercising their legal rights to organize for mutual aid and protection.
They have filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board and an investigation is pending.
200 POUNDS OF COD PER HOUR
Castro began working for Eastern Fisheries in 2017 through the temp agency B.J.’s Service Company. She earned $15 an hour cleaning and wielding a sharp knife to debone cod fillets.
Most of the Latino workers like Castro are temps. They are caught between the temp agencies that contract them and Eastern Fisheries, one of the nation’s largest seafood suppliers. Between temps and direct hires, the company employs about 500 workers, mainly from Central America, with a smattering from the African archipelago Cape Verde. Many are undocumented.
Castro and other worker-leaders at Eastern Fisheries and across the seafood processing industry have been organizing for some time. They are part of Pescando Justicia (Fishing for Justice), a worker committee housed at the worker center Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, that fights for dignified work in the fishhouses—for instance, winning a settlement over rampant workplace sexual harassment in another seafood plant in 2019.
During Covid, Castro and other Eastern Fisheries’ workers joined Pescando Justicia in making demands of the industry to protect workers’ lives. They met with city and state officials and played a role in the closing of a number of plants for cleaning and the passing of an emergency Covid order for factories in New Bedford that served as a national model.
More recently, in January 2022, Castro said, company supervisors increased the production quota, requiring workers to debone and clean 200 pounds of cod an hour. Their supervisor began timing the workers, who had never timed production quotas before.
“As we were timed, we couldn’t go to the bathroom. We couldn’t move away from the table,” Castro said. “So I told [our supervisor] that it was against the law to deny us bathroom breaks, plus we couldn’t control the natural need to relieve ourselves.”
But the supervisor told her, “I have to do what the bosses tell me, not what a worker says,” Castro recalls.
Next Castro brought her concerns to the temp agency, explaining that the workers were paid as hourly employees and not by piecework.
“Ruth is organizing her co-workers,” the supervisor allegedly told management. Shortly after, Castro was hauled before top managers at Eastern Fisheries, where her request for an interpreter was denied—and she was fired.
But now other workers were mad and ready to stand up. “We are feeling unfairly overworked and disrespected,” workers wrote in a letter to the president of Eastern Fisheries, calling for Castro’s reinstatement. Two dozen workers signed the letter. “We are yelled at and forced to repeatedly undergo production tests.”
Justice at Work, a labor advocacy nonprofit, filed a charge on Castro’s behalf against Eastern Fisheries and B.J.’s with the National Labor Relations Board and won Castro’s reinstatement this March. The Labor Board found that Castro was “unlawfully terminated” by her joint employers Eastern Fisheries and B.J.’s Service Company, and forced them to pay her wages and benefits lost during her period of unemployment.
When Castro triumphantly returned to work, Eastern Fisheries was required to post a notice telling workers that they had the right “to engage in protected activities with your fellow employees and others that concern your wages, hours, and working conditions, and WE WILL NOT do anything to interfere with your exercise of that right.” It also stated that Ruth Castro had been unlawfully terminated and she would get back pay.
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The notice was a big victory for the workers because it boosted their sense that they had enforceable rights regardless of their immigration status.
HIDING BEHIND THE TEMP AGENCY
Unfortunately, the victory was short-lived. In February, Eastern Fisheries notified workers of its intent to terminate its contract with B.J.’s.
In a bitter twist, the announcement was translated into Spanish and the Mayan language K’iche, a concession the company made after Pescando Justicia called on Eastern Fisheries to implement a code of conduct. Among the demands was to communicate any disciplinary actions in the worker’s language.
“B.J.’s will no longer be offering positions at Eastern after April 2, 2023,” read the February notice. “B.J.’s is your employer, not Eastern. B.J.’s is not terminating or laying-off anyone.”
These were lies. By terminating the contract with the temp agency, the company was effectively laying off the workers, but trying to dodge the legal repercussions for firing workers for organizing.
But Eastern Fisheries Vice President Joe Furtado played the dumb boss, saying in a press statement, “to deal with the implications of joint employment, it was my decision to end all of our staffing agency agreements.” Now the company says it will directly employ all workers at the plant.
It’s standard for employers to use temp agencies to insulate themselves from the consequences of violating labor law, said Laura Padin, a senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project. However, “Workers, regardless of their immigration status, have labor and employment rights,” Padin wrote in an email to Labor Notes.
A company like Eastern Fisheries is a joint employer because it controls every aspect of working conditions—from determining and supervising temp workers’ assignments to their hours and break schedules. That makes it responsible as an employer, along with the temp agency.
At the height of the pandemic, with the support of the Department of Labor, workers got Eastern Fisheries to provide emergency federal paid sick leave to the B.J.’s workers because Eastern was a joint employer.
TESTING NEW PROTECTIONS
Workers say the contract termination was meant to weed out organizers. They have filed another unfair labor charge alleging retaliation, and the Labor Board has taken statements from workers.
Adrian Ventura, executive director of the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, says the Labor Board charges open up the possibility for workers to make use of new guidelines issued in January by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The new guidelines are meant to protect immigrant workers from deportation when they have experienced abuse on the job or are participating as witnesses in an investigation of workplace violations. There’s a newly streamlined process to apply for deferred action in their immigration proceedings.
As the seafood processing workers move forward with their applications, it is a crucial test of how clear and accessible a path these DHS guidelines are to ensure protection from immigration-related intimidation and retaliation by abusive employers.