Employees dehead Louisiana white shrimp at C.F. Gollott & Son Seafood in D'Iberville, Mississippi, June 3, 2010.

US seafood workers fight unsafe job conditions amid pandemic

A coronavirus outbreak among workers at a Louisiana crawfish processing plant kicked off a legal battle with their employers over dangerous working conditions during the pandemic. Many of them are migrants on seasonal visas.

For the past four years, Reyna Isabel Alvarez Navarro has reported to work at a crawfish processing plant in Crowley, Louisiana, bundled in two pairs of pants, two sweaters and a hat. She spent her days inside a freezing room where up to 100 employees worked elbow to elbow peeling crawfish. 

The cold, crowded conditions weren’t new for the 36-year-old seasonal worker from northern Mexico. But it turned out to be the perfect setting for the novel coronavirus to spread: This spring, several dozen workers in the plant fell ill with COVID-19, including Alvarez Navarro. 

Her working conditions also made it difficult for her to obtain medical care. Alvarez Navarro and other migrant workers from her region have come to Louisiana and other states in the US every year on H-2B visas for temporary foreign workers. They stayed for the crawfish farming season, which usually runs from January to July, and lived in employer-provided dorms along with up to 40 people. They were paid $2.50 per pound of peeled crawfish — amounting to $600 to $700 per week.

H-2B workers’ visas tie them to their employer, explained Evy Peña, communications director with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant worker’s rights group with offices in Mexico and the US. Workers rely on their employers for things like transportation and housing.

“And this means that their access to basic services, including food and medical services, depends on their job,” Peña said.

But Alvarez Navarro’s employer did not provide her with health care or help her obtain it — not even after placing her and many of her co-workers in quarantine once they showed symptoms of the coronavirus. Their effort to seek treatment kicked off a legal battle with their employer over dangerous work conditions for seasonal workers during the pandemic.

While the Trump administration is temporarily suspending some employment-based visas, visas for workers essential to the food chain are still being granted. Crawfish is one of Louisiana’s largest industries — and amid the pandemic, seafood workers are considered essential. The seafood industry could face some of the same problems the meatpacking and poultry industries saw earlier this year: meat shortages and plant closures after workers fell ill. 

Related: Migrant farmworkers in US deemed essential — but lack basic protections

Alvarez Navarro started feeling ill in April. First came headaches. Then a cough and shortness of breath. Many others fell ill too. Most kept working, but at some point, Alvarez Navarro and many others became too ill to work. 

Without access to treatment, Alvarez and another sick co-worker, Maribel Hernandez Villadares, decided to go to a hospital with the help of a friend who spoke English.

“And when the friend called our boss, the boss said he had reported us to immigration authorities because we had run away.”

Hernandez Villadares, seafood worker

“And when the friend called our boss, the boss said he had reported us to immigration authorities because we had run away,” said Hernandez Villadares, a 29-year-old worker with several crawfish harvest seasons under her belt. 

Without a job, H-2B workers don’t have the authorization to work in the US — and that creates a domino effect, Peña said.

“So losing a job, losing their immigration status means that not only could they get blacklisted, but also their family members, maybe even their entire community. So when we’re talking about a financial burden, it’s not only individual, it’s also collective,” Peña said.

Both Alvarez Navarro and Hernandez Villadares filed a whistleblower complaint against their former employer, Acadia Processors LLC, saying they were fired without a valid reason. 

Acadia Processors LLC didn’t respond to an interview request from The World. But a spokesperson told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser newspaper the company didn’t fire the workers — rather, it said, they “fled the scene” and “abandoned their jobs.”

Related: For undocumented workers, demanding better work conditions could mean deportation

Complaints about worker safety and employer safety are common and have persisted during the pandemic, according to advocacy groups and former seafood workers. 

Mario Alberto Chávez Galomo, a migrant worker from the state of Mexico, worked as a crawfish fisherman under one employer for eight years. He recalls many instances of retaliation, as well as unsafe working conditions. 

“We were forced to finish the season — even if we fell ill.”

Mario Alberto Chávez Galomo, migrant worker

“We were forced to finish the season — even if we fell ill,” said Chávez Galomo, who now works in construction. “Often, we had to endure tough living conditions, too. No potable water, inside the dorms. Also, long hours fishing during heavy rainfall and lost wages.”

Chávez Galomo says these issues were rampant before the pandemic and is not surprised the situation has worsened this year. He and other workers have organized and spoken out against their treatment, and are encouraging more workers to speak up. 

If employers are not willing to change and mobilize during the pandemic, the responsibility to enforce guidelines falls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Labor Relations Board. 

“And unfortunately since there’s been no enforcement throughout this crisis, the guidelines have been rendered meaningless to workers in seafood processing plants where they’re not being implemented,” said Sabina Hinz-Foley Trejo, lead organizer with the Seafood Workers Alliance in New Orleans, a workers rights group.

On June 25, months into the pandemic, OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released temporary guidelines for the seafood industry. The guidelines say workers need to be spread out and shifts should be staggered in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19.  

But Trejo says those guidelines still don’t address a major problem facing migrant workers: retaliation by employers.

That leaves workers like Alvarez Navarro and Hernandez Villadares in an impossible position. They rely on the crawfish industry to feed their families in Mexico. 

“I came here to work and to sustain my family. That need makes you capable of withstanding a lot.”

Reyna Isabel Alvarez Navarro, seafood worker

“I came here to work and to sustain my family,” Alvarez Navarro said. “That need makes you capable of withstanding a lot.”

She has stayed quiet in the past about treatment and unsafe working conditions in the crawfish processing plants. But the pandemic convinced her to speak out, she said — even at the risk of not getting hired again.  

“This time I forgot about all of that, because, honestly, this situation we went through, I was feeling hopeless,” Alvarez Navarro said. 

Invest in global news with heart!

The World is a nonprofit newsroom powered by listener support. When you make a recurring gift, you’re making an investment that allows The World to cover the most important international stories with nuance and care. Our listeners are at the heart of what makes The World such an invaluable source for global news. Will you create a recurring donation today to power The World all year long?