NEW BEDFORD — Ruth Castro’s immigration status was never a problem for Eastern Fisheries, where she had worked cutting and packaging fish for over seven years. It wasn’t a problem either for B.J.’s Service Company, the third-party staffing agency that had placed her at the New Bedford processing plant.
But that changed on Monday. Amid a recent effort to organize the largely immigrant workforce — and an active federal investigation into a charge of unfair labor practices — the company has restructured itself to screen its workers, checking their eligibility to legally work in the United States.
The tighter hiring standards have resulted in about 100 workers losing their jobs at Eastern Fisheries, the company confirmed Monday.
“It’s a way to intimidate the workers,” said Castro, who over the last year has led a group of largely undocumented fish processors at Eastern Fisheries attempting to fight for better labor conditions.
Last week, Eastern Fisheries cut ties with its main staffing agencies. The company told 110 of its workers on Friday that they could reapply for the same jobs they previously held as direct employees of Eastern Fisheries. But workers were also told that, as part of the restructuring, the company would be screening their authorization to work in the United States through the government program E-Verify — which checks immigration status and social security numbers.
As a result, about 40 undocumented immigrants — many of whom said they have worked at Eastern Fisheries for years — were not able to reapply for their jobs on Monday. It is due in part to the fact that the workers will not clear the process that screens their eligibility to work in the country, they said, and also due to fear that the process could potentially flag them for deportation.
They say the selective form of enforcement is an act of intimidation aimed at stifling a nascent labor movement within the company. All 40 of those workers had been actively engaged in organizing their workplace, they said, fighting for better pay and improved safety and labor conditions.
“All of these workers are going to lose their jobs because the company has just decided it wants to verify our documentation,” Castro, speaking in Spanish, said on Monday as she stood at the steps of the Eastern Fisheries processing plant in New Bedford’s business park, her job application in hand.
Of the 110 workers affected, a total of 11 have been directly hired by Eastern Fisheries while 45 left the company voluntarily, the company confirmed.
In a written response, Eastern Fisheries denied the allegations that it was using selective enforcement of federal immigration law to weed out labor activists from the ranks of its fish processors.
“Eastern absolutely denies any improper motive in seeking to hire the workers as regular Eastern employees,” a company spokesperson wrote to The Light. “This is not retaliation.”
The decision of Eastern Fisheries to sever its contracts with staffing agencies comes after an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency that protects labor rights, set a jarring precedent for the New Bedford waterfront.
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Staffing agencies act as middle-men between employers and New Bedford’s many undocumented immigrant workers. They provide workers for often minimum-wage jobs, like those at fish processing plants, and also allow employers to avoid culpability for hiring undocumented workers or potentially violating labor laws — as the workers are technically employed by the staffing agency, not the company itself.
It is an opaque operation that is part of a “longstanding practice and understanding in the seafood industry,” Eastern Fisheries wrote in a press release. Questions still remain as to how the undocumented workers were able to gain employment in the first place.
But the wink-and-nod practice was challenged by the NLRB, when its investigation into unfair labor practices determined in November of 2022 that the company and its contracted staffing agency were considered “joint employers.”
“This finding has many legal implications, but basically, it means there is no legal separation between Eastern Fisheries and the agency,” Joe Furtado, VP of Eastern Fisheries, wrote in an email to The Light. “To deal with the implications of joint employment, it was my decision to end all of our staffing agency agreements.”
The precedent was set based on an NLRB investigation of unfair labor practices at Eastern Fisheries and B.J.’s. That charge was filed in January of 2022 by Castro — one of the many undocumented workers to lose their job at the fish processing plant on Monday.
Castro was fired from Eastern Fisheries and B.J.’s while she was attempting to organize the workplace and fight for better labor conditions, according to the charge. It’s a process that is protected by federal labor law.
Later, the NLRB determined that Castro had been “unlawfully terminated” by Eastern Fisheries and B.J.’s Service Company, and that the 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.
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Then, the company informed its workers that it would cut ties with its staffing agencies as of April 1. In written statements, the company described the move as a restructuring aimed at acting in accordance with federal law.
“Eastern has no idea what kind of review or checking BJs did when it hired these workers,” a spokesperson for Eastern Fisheries wrote to the Light. “Eastern therefore decided to accept full responsibility for all employment aspects and hire back the employees as regular Eastern employees.”
But those involved see it differently.
Justice At Work, a labor advocacy nonprofit that provides legal services to low-wage workers, filed a 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 last week that it is actively investigating the charge.
The 40 or so workers not rehired and who have not voluntarily left the company have been left in the lurch, seeking to regain the jobs but unable to reapply through the company’s new standards.
On Monday, those 40 workers marched into the Eastern Fisheries processing plant with a letter addressed to the company’s management. They asked if the company would reconsider using E-Verify to screen the employees’ work authorizations.
When the management didn’t acquiesce, they offered the letter, written in Spanish and signed by 40 former Eastern Fisheries workers.
“We understand this as an attempt to intimidate and stop protected activities,” the letter states, in part. “This is a step backwards.”
Email fishing industry reporter Will Sennott at email@example.com.
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