The job description for a seafood processor for Silver Bay Seafoods is straightforward: You’ll work some 12-18 hours a day during the height of the season.
“The season is short but busy. This job requires working constantly with hands, some heavy lifting, and standing for long periods of time. Employee must work quickly in order to meet production deadlines and shall have the ability to understand and follow instructions and safety rules. The work environment can be very wet, and cold.”
The description goes on from there, but doesn’t improve. This is heavy work, long hours, repetitive motion, fast-moving, dangerous, wet, cold, involving sharp instruments on slippery surfaces, and generally a miserable way to spend a day, if one is to interpret Silver Bay Seafoods’ web page for prospective seafood processor employees.
THE WORK IS HARD BUT THE PAY IS LOW
If the work is tough and slimy, the pay is not something you’ll raise a family on: Minimum wage plus 25 cents, or $10 per hour, and close to $15 for overtime; more for those with experience. Summer only.
So when seafood processors in Bristol Bay couldn’t find workers this summer, and when a record number of salmon hit Bristol Bay nets, it was an embarrassment of riches, and a dearth of willing workers on the slime lines.
The job of “slimer” is a rite of passage for many Alaskans who are now a bit long in the tooth. Even Hillary Clinton came to Alaska one summer to work in a cannery. She washed out after trying to organize workers into a union. College students and Filipinos used to flock to the canneries.
But slime line work has never been a career; it’s been a path to some quick cash and being in an isolated place where you’ll have a chance to save that cash. Few people do it for more than a season or two. The company typically charges you $10 a day for room and board, and you get raingear and boots and gloves to wear. You just need to bring warm clothing.
Maybe you’ll even meet a fishing permit holder and get a job aboard a boat the following year.
Younger Alaskans, and regionally close Alaska Natives, are not signing up for summer slime line jobs, even though unemployment in Alaska averages 6.8 percent.
Americans in general won’t sign up for the work in the numbers needed, especially with low unemployment in the Lower 48. So recruiters go off-shore.
This year, wary of the wisdom of bringing foreigners in on work visas, they recruited in the territory of Puerto Rico, where the unemployment rate is over 11 percent. Some 250 Puerto Ricans came to Bristol Bay to work.
At least three of them returned to Puerto Rico quickly and described the conditions as subhuman, exploitative, and virtual slavery. In other words, just another day on the slime line.
A news story was written in the Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Dia last month. One complained of persistent backache and hives from the experience:
“The pain in the back I feel even in the bones. I have a severe pain in the area of the kidneys. I got some hives in the body that I never knew where they came from,” the 25-year-old told the newspaper.
Earlier this summer, the man had left his job loading cargo at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, where he earned the minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. He headed to Bristol Bay, where he said he’d been promised he would generate $10,000 for up to three months of work.
“The memories of the three Puerto Ricans are full of terror,” the newspaper wrote. “When they remember those days, their voices break, their gazes are far away, their heads drop, or they cover their faces with their hands. “
“We do not want any Puerto Ricans to go through what we go through,”‘ one of the men said.
“Three days in a factory of “zombies.”‘
Peter Pan Seafoods also describes fish processing work as long, arduous, and repetitive: “Working in a fish cannery is not an experience for everyone, and everyone should understand their limitations.”
Anyone who has done it can attest to that — this is not work for the old, infirm, or for someone in poor condition. It’s intense when the fish come in. Everyone gets tired. Foremen get grumpy.
PUERTO RICAN GOVERNOR ESCALATES THE MATTER
But with the complaint from the three Puerto Ricans, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, of Puerto Rico arrived in Rhode Island to a meeting of the National Governor’s Association, and confronted the governor of Alaska on July 15.
Nevares handed Gov. Bill Walker a letter asking for an investigation of working conditions at Alaska’s seafood processors, specifically Silver Bay Seafoods. And, politician that he is, he made sure that he was photographed serving notice on Gov. Walker. And as governors do, he published a press release about the event.
“It is alleged that 250 Puerto Rican workers were recruited by this factory and, according to several reports, are working in deplorable and inhuman conditions,” Gov. Nevares said in the letter.
His letter went on to say that if the allegations are true, Silver Bay Seafoods would be in violation of the United States Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act. And maybe even qualified as a human trafficking operation.
“As the governor of Puerto Rico, I am committed to ensuring the well-being of all residents of the island, including those who move temporarily to other jurisdictions within the United States in search of better opportunities,” the letter stated.
According to Puerto Rican news reports, Gov. Walker thanked Nevares for letting him know, and said he had no knowledge of the situation, but would follow up.
It didn’t take long for Alaska’s own OSHA investigators to show up in Naknek to check it out. Their report won’t be finalized for months, and until then it’s going to be under wraps — and not fish wraps.
But when OSHA shows up, you can bet they will find something wrong, and this could be a tough year for Silver Bay Seafoods, if OSHA decides to fine the group of fishermen that own the company.
The company began in 2007 as a single salmon processing facility in Sitka, but has grown into one of the largest seafood companies in Alaska, with five domestic processing facilities.
“Silver Bay’s primary strength is in its combination of having a state of the art processing plant and favorable logistics to support its operations; competent management and key personnel; an established fish buying system; and ownership by fishermen who represent over 80% of the committed fishing effort,” according to its web site.
We’ll leave the rest to Craig Medred to explain why Alaska seafood is becoming less competitive in the global market place, with the cost of labor being just one of the issues and farmed salmon now ubiquitous:
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