Who are we now? 20 years without cod

I am a fish plant worker

Essay by Peggy M. Stagg

Peggy Stagg
Peggy M. Stagg is a fish plant worker and musician in Elliston.

It's May 8, 2012.

As I walk into the stock room of the Ocean Choice International crab plant in Bonavista, the clerk hands me my apron and gloves. The smell of rubber and the wharf with fresh caught crab, and the sound of the sea gulls flying overhead brings me back to 1978. It's the same smell and sound that was there on that sunny morning I first entered the fishery to work in a fish plant.

We were mostly young people, all the young fellows and girls who had quit school for the high-paying, year-round jobs right in our own town. Everyone had new cars and new homes. I was one of these young faces back then. Such carefree days. I gave my children everything they wanted - my daughter even got a degree in nursing without student loans.

Was working in a fish plant hard work? You bet it was.

Would I do it again? Yes, I would.

We worked on an assembly line, same as working at a Ford automobile plant. There were workers who split the fish. Others skinned, boned, graded, and packed it into cartons. The cod, flounder, rosefish and turbot was checked for quality. After that it went into freezers. We lifted heavy pans and when we exceeded our production targets, we got bonus pay.

We had pride, and never thought about the smell of fish on us when we went to the bank to change our big cheques on Friday dinner break. We had takeout too, on payday. We worked Monday to Sunday, nine hours every day. Working in the winter was hard, trying to drive through snowstorms before a plow went through. We were young and could laugh and joke because we had jobs and the security that good jobs bring.

Oh, what a sad day when the cod ran out and the moratorium was issued. When I hung up my apron that day in 1992 I never dreamed what loomed ahead. Like a lot of my friends, I took the TAGs money, hoped that the cod stock would grow, and we would be back working again.

It didn't happen. So I went off to Brampton, Ontario. What a culture shock that was. I was there for six months doing factory work. My children were grown up by this time, so when I came home from Ontario I went back to school for my high school diploma. I was even student of the year - at 47 years old!

By the late nineties, our fish plant had been changed into a state-of-the-art shrimp plant. But that same plant that once employed 1,000 people now only needed about 200 workers. I was way down on the list of getting a job there.

So I decided to take a trade. But before I finished my course, I got my call to work in the new OCI shrimp plant in Port Union. So away I went - back to good money, but this time it was different. It was only seasonal work.

There was no smell of fish outside the plant anymore; almost all the smell was inside. But the money sure didn't smell.

I worked there for about seven years until Hurricane Igor hit in September 2010. The storm caused a flood which seriously damaged the plant, and closed its doors. We had to wait until just before Christmas 2011 to get the news that it would not open anymore.

Yes, I cried. What could I do at my age? I was too young to retire and too old to leave for Alberta like so many of the younger people. So last summer I worked on a make work project for $10 an hour. 20 years ago, I got $9 an hour in the fish plant, and that was before overtime and bonuses. So while we fisherpeople waited to see what the company and the government planned to do about us older workers, I put in an application at the OCI crab plant in Bonavista.

Then in May, I got a call for work. I was so excited and nervous. It was just wonderful to have a job again.

I am still too young to retire so I have to take what I can get right now. I look at my co-workers and friends who started out with me back in 1978, and the faces are tired and old. There are very few young people.

Plant work is so different now. It's only seasonal. I am not sure of how many weeks of work we will get this year, but my foot is in the door for next year. There is a new change in EI that has put a negative light on things, but I am trying not to worry too much until the details get ironed out.

So here I am today, putting on my rubber boots, rubber gloves and apron. It's hard work, and after all the changes I have been through in the last 20 years, I have come full circle. Oh, how a sunny morning and the smell of rubber, salt water and fresh catch takes me back.