Nfld. & Labrador

No commitments from Ottawa about ice compensation for fish plant workers

Meetings were held in Ottawa this week to address compensation for fish plant workers affected by a slow start to the season because ice grounded harvesters.

Federal minister 'left the door open' after Monday meetings, according to N.L. delegation

Steve Crocker, Newfoundland and Labrador's Minister of Fisheries and Land Resources, was in Ottawa this week with keith Sullivan of the FFAW and fish plant representatives to lobby for a compensation package for processors who are idle due to a slow start to the fishing season. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Special meetings were held in Ottawa this week regarding compensation for Newfoundland and Labrador fish plant workers who are unemployed because of lingering sea ice, but the only promise made was to keep working on it.

We were encouraged to the point where the minister has left the door open.- Steve Crocker

Ice that's stubbornly clinging to the northern coast of Newfoundland over the last two months has meant many boats have not been able to get out to their fishing grounds.

On Monday, provincial fisheries minister Steve Crocker, Keith Sullivan of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union and fish plant representatives from Bonavista and St. Anthony went to Ottawa to advocate for processors.

This plant in Arnold's Cove is operating, but this year 14 fewer plants than usual are open, according to the provincial minister. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

"These workers are being impacted by an environmental shift that drastically affects a large number of people," Crocker told the Central Morning Show.

"This natural occurrence doesn't happen on a regular basis. The last time we've seen ice conditions like this, most people date back in the early 1990s."

Crocker said there are 14 fewer plants operating in the province in June compared to the same time last year, and even those that are open are seeing a drastic reduction in hours.

He said employment insurance benefits are also now ending for 5,000 workers who depend on seasonal fish plant work.

In the 2016 budget, the federal government extended EI benefits for five weeks for 15 regions across Canada, including Newfoundland and Labrador, outside of St. John's.

Heavy sea ice, like that seen here along the coast of the Baie Verte Peninsula earlier this month, has caused a delay to the start of the fishing season for many harvesters and plant workers. (DFO)

Crocker, Sullivan and the plant representatives met with the Newfoundland and Labrador federal caucus, as well as Jean-Yves Duclos, the minister responsible for Service Canada. 

Crocker said while they didn't get a firm answer on getting a compensation package, he's still holding out hope that something will be done as soon as possible.

"We were encouraged to the point where the minister has left the door open," Crocker said. "He did commit to going back and doing some further work on this."

Transitional times

Crocker said while their main concern during the meetings was getting relief for processors, they also discussed the changing face of the fishery and how that will affect workers in the years ahead.

The average age of a fish plant employee in Newfoundland and Labrador is about 58, according to Crocker, and he said that means leaders have to look at how workers will adapt as the fishery shifts away from shellfish.

"What we're looking for immediately is some sort of compensation for our plant workers to get them through this rough spot. But as a province and as a federal government we have a responsibility to look at this industry for the transition over the next couple of years," he said.

"We're headed to a couple of tough years as we see a decline in shellfish. And we haven't seen the increase in groundfish yet that's going to create the bridge that we need to transition from a predominantly shellfish industry to a groundfish industry."

With files from Central Morning Show