Nfld. & Labrador

Twillingate workers facing radical changes with fish plant closure

For some workers at the Notre Dame Seafoods plant in Twillingate, this will be the first time in decades they've looked for a new job.

'I wouldn't have a clue at my age,' says worker of retraining opportunities

About 50 fishplant workers turned out to a meeting Tuesday night. MHA Derek Bennett told them about some government assistance available. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

With the closure of the shrimp processing plant in Twillingate this season, Paula Elliott was forced to look for a new job — for the first time in about 30 years.

The Notre Dame Seafoods facility was showing no signs of life, so Elliott picked up a part-time job at a local grocery store.

That meant leaving the only life she has known since she was 15.

To even just think that I can't go in that plant again is devastating.- Paula Elliott

"It's been my livelihood for the last 33 years," she said. "It's all I know. It's all I've ever done."

About 100 fish plant workers in Twillingate now know for certain that they're in a similar situation.

Notre Dame Seafoods has told union and government officials that the facility in Twillingate won't open at all this year — and with shrimp stocks plummeting, the future of the plant is far from secure.

Workers learned some details of their options Tuesday night in a meeting with union officials and Lewisporte-Twillingate MHA Derek Bennett.

For many, the path forward will be a big change into new jobs, or new careers.

Paula Elliott says minimum wage is not enough for the employment projects planned for the Twillingate area. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

To retrain or not

Bennett told workers the provincial government would help fund minimum-wage employment projects designed to help plant workers qualify for their employment insurance.

The projects will be run in partnership with community groups and town councils. Individual jobs would stop once workers got enough hours. 

Without education, it's looking very deplorable.- Calvin Burge

He said the province would also fund employee retraining. He told CBC News that government would potentially fund travel costs, tuition or book costs for laid-off workers who wanted to try their hand at a new career.

Elliott called that proposal "ridiculous" for a plant with an average age, she estimates, in the 50s.

"If I had to go back to school to retrain, I wouldn't know what to retrain for. I wouldn't have a clue at my age," she said.

Calvin Burge says he wants to retrain to become a heavy equipment operator, and believes he may find a job in the Twillingate area with it. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Young people in the province are having their own difficulties finding work after school, Elliot said, adding that doesn't bode well for people in their 50s or 60s.

"They can go back to retrain, but what do you go back to retrain for? When it seems there are no jobs in anything that you do."

'Looking very deplorable'

A lot of workers in the fish plant are not interested in retraining, according to worker Calvin Burge, but he said it is the best option for the future.

"Without education, it's looking very deplorable," he said. "You need a Grade 12 diploma to push a broom to be a janitor. It might sound ridiculous, but that's the way it is now."

He plans to retrain to work as a heavy equipment operator, an area where he already has some experience.

Lewisporte-Twillingate MHA Derek Bennett says anyone, whatever their age, will have some opportunity to improve their employment through retraining programs. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

At 35, Burge said he may be better suited to retaining than some of his co-workers, but he said he felt some people needed to change their perspective.

"I don't think they are looking at the big picture the way I'm looking at it. Because I think that with the re-training … you're more apt to get a better paying job or a more steady job."

More money for projects?

At the meeting Tuesday night, several workers said that government should redirect money from the retraining effort to give a better wage to employees on the projects.

Bennett said he heard the complaints about the minimum wage, but committed only to discussing it with cabinet officials.

Union and provincial government officials say the decline in the shrimp quota was the drive behind the closure of the processing plant. (CBC)

"Whether the provincial or federal government are able under the circumstances to assist more, I guess that's something that will have to be determined later," he said.

The MHA did not rule out the possibility of the fish plant reopening in the future, but said his immediate priority was trying to find assistance for workers.

Elliott, meanwhile, said she is having a hard time imagining her life without the fish plant.

"My whole life has been in that plant. That's been my life," she said.

"To even just think that I can't go in that plant again is devastating. That's the only word I can use to describe it."

About the Author

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.