NEW BEDFORD — A woman working at a New Bedford seafood processing company said she began receiving unwanted text messages from her male supervisor this spring. First, he asked her on a date. Then, when she declined his repeated requests, he sent her a picture of his genitals, she told police.

The woman, who had worked as a fish cutter at the company for about one year, filed a police report detailing the alleged harassment. With the encouragement of a female supervisor, she also reported the incidents to the company’s human resources department. But instead of resolving the issue, the women say they were met with retaliation: their workloads were increased; the male supervisor lodged complaints against them to management; and they received citations for “insubordination” and failing to follow protocols. 

Soon after reporting the harassment, both women said they were fired. 

The company, True North Seafood, said the two incidents are unrelated. While the female supervisor was fired for cause, the company said the woman who was the victim of the harassment was let go due to “seasonal decrease in product demand.” She was employed through a staffing agency, and the company said she would be welcome back when demand returns. But the women say the citations that resulted in what they described as being fired amount to acts of retaliation for speaking up against sexual harassment in the workplace. 

The male supervisor was also fired in July, True North Seafood said. He was employed through the staffing agency B.J.’s Service Company, which after an investigation determined that he had a history of sexual harassment from his previous workplace, according to people familiar with the case. But that provided no consolation to the victim of the sexual harassment and the female supervisor who stood up for her, both women said.

“This is a serious injustice,” said the female supervisor, who had worked at the company for three years. “For defending her, they fired me.” 

The incident is an example of what labor activists in New Bedford describe as a pervasive and often undocumented problem in the seafood processing industry. It is a job that is staffed largely by women, many of whom are immigrants and don’t speak English, and are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment from those in positions of authority. 

In May, a worker at Eastern Fisheries filed a complaint that detailed five years of sexual harassment in the workplace. In 2019, several women received a settlement after being sexually harassed while working a Fall River packing plant now owned by Atlantic Capes Fisheries. 

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“True North does not believe that harassment is a prevalent issue at its New Bedford facility,” the company said in a written statement.

The women from True North Seafood asked for their names not to be published for fear of being blacklisted as “troublemakers” when seeking future employment. In an interview with The Light, they spoke in Spanish through a translator. 

But they’re not backing down either, the women said. 

On Tuesday afternoon, about two-dozen seafood workers staged a demonstration at the True North Seafood facilities in the center of the South End industrial complex. It was organized by Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT), a group that advocates for New Bedford’s many immigrant workers. They marched through the shipping entrance, chanting and holding signs that demanded “justice” for the victim and that the workers fired get their jobs back. 

They were promptly escorted off the property. 

There was a small police detail at the demonstration that included New Bedford Police Chief Paul Oliviera. In an interview, he spoke about how immigrant communities can be vulnerable to sexual harassment in the workplace. As some are fearful of police, and generally unfamiliar with the criminal justice system, he said it is a crime that can often go unreported. 

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The chief also spoke about the relationship he has been developing with the city’s seafood processors. Last month, he attended a meeting in which the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) signed an alliance with CCT. The goal was to inform workers of their labor rights, which are guaranteed “regardless of immigration status,” as one OSHA official described. 

Oliveira said the same applies for those who are victims of sexual assault or harrassment in the workplace. 

“It’s a major concern to me,” he said. “It’s important that we build this trust so that, if they are being victimized, we are able to do our jobs to protect them.” 

There have not yet been any charges brought against the supervisor who allegedly committed the sexual harassment. 

True North Seafoods mainly processes and distributes salmon. It was formerly known as Mariner Seafood before it filed for bankruptcy in 2020 and was acquired by the subsidiary of Canadian seafood giant Cooke. At the time of the acquisition, the company said in a press release that it is capable of processing over 16 million pounds of salmon annually and at the time employed 170 people. 

“We are proactive in our training and in fact, our management and supervisory personnel were educated by attorneys from Ogletree Deakins who conducted cultural awareness and harassment training in September 2022,” the statement from True North said.

(Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 3, 2023, to include additional information from True North Seafood and Atlantic Capes Fisheries.)

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