150 Cannery Workers Stranded…

LAX Los Angeles. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There was an Internet news story on ABC News that caught my eyes with the headline “150 Cannery Workers forced into hotel quarantine without pay”. It was also widely reported in Los Angeles’ local news such as KTLA News in June 2020.

Each summer, Pacific Seafoods based in Seattle hires hundreds of foreign workers for summer jobs at its Naknek cannery, located in Bristol Bay, Alaska, promising them round trip transportation to and from their point of hire as well as lodging and meals. Most of the workers were from Mexico or Southern California; however, in 2020, something went wrong and resulted in a lawsuit.

Because of the COVID 19, authorities in Alaska have issued orders requiring COVID 19 testing and controlled quarantine for anyone to work at a seafood processing plant in the state. Out of the roughly 150 workers gathered at Crowne Plaza Hotel in June 2020, three were tested positive for COVID 19. As a result, all 150 workers were under controlled quarantine for 14 days, from June 10th to June 25th. They were served 2 meals a day and could not leave the room or they’d be fired. On top of that, they would not be paid for the time during the quarantine. As a result, this group of workers files a lawsuit against North Pacific Seafoods, over an allegedly unpaid quarantine period at the hotel.

The story sounds familiar, I thought I was reading a story from the hell ship of the early 1900s. I recall reading another article by Margaret Riddle with a similar title “One hundred and fifty Chinese workers bound for salmon canneries at Blaine leave Seattle on April 2, 1900.” At that time, the salmon canning landscape was quite different:

  1. Puget Sound had a huge salmon canning industry at the time, second only to Alaska. Seattle was a major center of packing companie, home to many contractors, and a dispatching center of workers.
  2. Chinese laborers were the major workforce in salmon canneries, and numbered in 5000+ in 1900. They were employed by Chinese labor contractors to work in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington.
  3. The workers were transported to canneries by steam ships or sailing ships. A trip from Seattle to Bristol Bay could take several weeks.
  4. Onboard the ship, they were kept in the tween deck area in a cramped space, poor ventilated, with one cup of water and two meals a day…

A lot has changed during the past 120 years. Salmon canning industry declines in the West Coast with the last cannery closure in the 1980s, while Alaska remains as the last stronghold for the canners. Labor union replaced Chinese contractors in the late 1930s, but its influence waned in the late 20th century. Today, packing companies do most of the hiring themselves. But one thing that has not changed is the desire of hiring cheap laborers, as we have seen here with the Mexican workers.

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