Nfld. & Labrador

Sea ice, quota cuts hurting Bonavista fish plant workers too

Ice conditions this spring has been devastating to fishermen, but the delay in the season is also being felt by those back on shore.

Plant workers need compensation packages as well, Bonavista OCI chairperson says

Many fish plant workers throughout Newfoundland's northern coast have been idle this season as sea ice and quota cuts mean less catch making it back to shore to be processed. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Ice conditions along Newfoundland's northern coast this spring has been devastating to fishermen unable to get their boats to fishing grounds, but the delay in the season is also being felt by those back on shore.

The Ocean Choice International (OCI) fish plant in Bonavista has thrived for the last decade or so, but this year's unusual ice situation means there isn't as much product as there should be.

According to Barry Randell, the unit chairperson at the plant, those working daytime hours are still getting enough work to make a living, but that's not the case for people hired for the second shift.

Barry Randell says 2017 has been a rough one for workers on the night shift at the Bonavista processing plant, who have had reduced shifts due to a lack of fish. (Melissa Tobin/CBC)

Randell says ice conditions — combined with quota cuts — have made this an unusually slow season.

In an interview with CBC Radio's Central Morning, Randell said most night shift workers have logged just 120 hours in the last eight weeks — less than 20 hours per week.

"That's not good, they should be averaging 40 hours a week," he said.

Looking for assistance

The Bonavista plant has more than 270 workers, making it one of the biggest operations on the island. Randell said much of that workforce is made up of older residents from the Bonavista area, who can't just pick up and move to go find work elsewhere.

That's why he and other union members are lobbying both the federal and provincial governments to step in to help the workers. They want Ottawa to extend Employment Insurance benefits for those whose payments are about to end — or have already ended — just as they did for harvesters last week.

"Always when we had ice conditions like we have this year, there was always some sort of compensation package where there was an extension to EI, or whatever," he said.

The Ocean Choice International fish processing plant in Bonavista employs more than 270 workers, making it one of the biggest in Newfoundland. (Google Maps)

From the provincial government, Randell wants to see a work program put in place to help those who've been without full-time employment for the last eight weeks. He said the province also has a role to play in getting Liberal peers on the federal level on board with a compensation package.

Working through it

Randell and others have started a committee through the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, and have started writing MPs and MHAs to address the issue.

He realizes that OCI in Bonavista is only one of many plants that are hurting right now, and said many are in worse circumstances. 

But after more than 40 years in the industry, Randell believes that the Bonavista plant is still a viable operation.

"You work through it, and you try to work with government when we need help," he said. 

"When we don't need help, like the last 10 or 11 years here when we actually doubled our workforce, you didn't hear much out of this Bonavista plant."

Quite a struggle

Scott Simms, the member of Parliament for Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, said he's been getting a lot of calls from harvesters and fish plant workers this year.

"I've never seen it as bad as this. It has been quite a struggle," he said. "We've had to start from scratch, basically, to start this program with ice assistance."

MP Scott Simms says fish plant workers were not included in federal assistance for iced-in harvesters because they already are entitled to apply for a five-week EI extension as outlined in the latest federal budget. (CBC)

Simms said similar ice conditions hampered the fishery back in 2007, but many of the foundations laid that year to help those affected no longer exist.

Assistance for plant workers

As for fish plant workers, Simms said they weren't included in the recent $5 million announcement because they're already covered under another federal initiative outlined in the latest budget.

That move put a temporary measure in place where workers in certain resource sectors can apply to have their EI extended by five weeks.

Nearly 5,000 claimants are available for that extension, and Simms said only 356 people have exhausted their claims so far. He's recommending that those interested check out Service Canada's website, or call his office.

"If you do not have a claim that is open and you are working in a plant and want the extension, you have to apply by July 8 to open up a claim," he said.

"I know there are some that will not be covered under that, but most of them will be."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Barry Randell as saying plant workers weren't included in a recent $5 million federal announcement. That quote should have been attributed to MP Scott Simms.
    Jun 12, 2017 4:19 PM NT

With files from Melissa Tobin