NEW BEDFORD — Eastern Fisheries is cutting ties with its main staffing agency, potentially laying off as many as 200 fish processors amid an ongoing federal investigation into unfair labor practices at the company.
Those involved described the action of Eastern Fisheries as retaliation aimed at a small group of workers attempting to organize the largely immigrant workforce and fight for better labor conditions. Eastern Fisheries is one of the top employers on the waterfront and the largest scallop company on the East Coast.
“They don’t want us organizing,” said Adrian Ventura, who leads Centro Comunitario De Trabajadores, a group that advocates for New Bedford’s many immigrant workers. “It’s clear this is about retaliation,” he said, speaking through a translator.
Most of the immigrants work in fish processing or packaging. Many who are not involved in organizing are caught in the cross-fire, Ventura said, as the company is specifically attempting to weed out the labor activists. There are only about 26 workers actively engaging in negotiations with company management to improve wages and working conditions, according to letters sent by those workers to management.
Eastern Fisheries and its staffing agency, B.J.’s Service Company, declined multiple requests for comment. B.J.’s is one of many staffing agencies in New Bedford that act as middle-men between employers and often undocumented immigrant workers.
“Eastern Fisheries, Inc. has terminated its relationship with B.J.’s Service Company, Inc. and as a result, B.J.’s will no longer be offering positions at Eastern after April 2, 2023,” the staffing agency wrote in a letter to its employees, translated into both Spanish and K’iche, an indigenous language spoken by many Guatemalans in New Bedford.
Last week, Blue Harvest, the largest groundfish company on the waterfront, announced that it is shutting down its processing plant and laying off 64 workers.
Eastern’s sudden announcement was made against the backdrop of a string of charges related to unfair labor practices dating back to 2022, filed by both individual workers and labor activist groups to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The NLRB determined in one charge that an employee was “unlawfully terminated,” and confirmed that there is an active investigation into another charge.
Ruth Castro, a fish processor for Eastern Fisheries, hired through B.J.’s, filed the first charge against both companies in January of 2022. She has worked at the company for seven years. At the time, she was concerned that Eastern Fisheries supervisors had started requiring “daily productivity tests,” according to the NLRB document explaining the charge.
“She was fired,” the charge states, because “she voiced her concerns on behalf of other workers about the productivity tests and its use to intimidate workers.” Two months later, B.J.’s had not yet found her other employment “despite her multiple calls and communications with them.”
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Castro being fired triggered a response from 26 fish processors, who signed a letter to Roy Enoksen, president of the company, asking him to give Castro back her job. They said Castro “spoke on our behalf” and, without her, were “worried that the workplace will become an even more dangerous and disrespectful place than it currently is.”
They also asked to be paid a minimum of $16 per hour, for the company to hire interpreters, both in Spanish and K’iche, and for the company to increase its safety standards, according to the letter.
In November of 2022, the NLRB determined that both companies had been “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in [labor law].”
The NLRB later ordered Castro be “reinstated to her former position at Eastern Fisheries” and that the companies “pay Ruth Castro for the wages and benefits she lost because [they] unlawfully terminated her,” according to an NLRB document signed by Eastern Fisheries management.
Then, on Feb. 1 of this year, Eastern Fisheries informed its workers that it would sever its contract with B.J’s staffing agency — effective April 1.
This time, not only will Castro lose her job again, but so will all the fish house workers employed through B.J.’s. Eastern has about 500 employees, according to its Linkedin page, and labor groups estimated that as many as 200 will lose their jobs as a result of the restructuring.
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“Eastern agreed to reinstate this worker only to end its contract with her and her coworkers placed there by B.J.’s,” said Tom Smith, director of Justice At Work, a labor advocacy nonprofit that provides legal services to low-wage workers.
Justice At Work filed another charge against Eastern Fisheries and B.J.’s with the NLRB on March 27, stating that the action was “motivated by employees having engaged in concerted activity with other employees for the purpose of mutual aid and protection, and to discourage employees from engaging in such activity,” which the group said constitutes a violation of labor law.
The NLRB confirmed on Thursday that it is actively investigating the charge.
At noon on Thursday, the second to last day before the fish house workers were set to lose their jobs, some delivered a letter to Eastern Fisheries management. They were no longer attempting to negotiate better working conditions or higher pay, but negotiating to keep their jobs.
“Many of us have worked for your company for years, and we are proud of the work that we do — work that has contributed to your company’s success,” they wrote. “We ask that you defer any action to terminate our employment.”
Ventura, who doesn’t work at Eastern Fisheries, also attempted to deliver the same letter to company management on Thursday. He didn’t make it through the front door.
Eastern managers asked him to place the letter in a manilla envelope, which they said they would give to their lawyers.
“We need a response,” he said. He added that if the fish house workers aren’t employed on Monday, they would return anyway to protest.
Email fishing industry reporter Will Sennott at email@example.com.
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