Thai work­ers in Bay de Verde

Seafood pro­cess­ing com­pany says local re­cruit­ing ef­forts came up short

The Compass - - OPINION - BY TERRY ROBERTS THE COM­PASS

There’s a uniquely in­ter­na­tional at­mos­phere in the bustling fish­ing com­mu­nity of Bay de Verde th­ese days, and it was cre­at­ing quite a de­bate through­out the prov­ince last week.

Some 20 for­eign work­ers from Thai­land are now em­ployed at the local seafood pro­cess­ing plant in what some say is a first for the New­found­land fish­ery.

Of­fi­cials with the com­pany that op­er­ates the plant, Quin­lan Broth­ers Lim­ited, say they were forced to look out­side the coun­try af­ter ex­ten­sive re­cruit­ing ef­forts closer to home came up short.

“We would pre­fer to hire lo­cally, and we put lots of ef­fort into it. Un­for­tu­nately, the com­pany was not able to get the con­tin­gent of

work­ers it needed.”

“We would pre­fer to hire lo­cally, and we put lots of ef­fort into it. Un­for­tu­nately, the com­pany was not able to get the con­tin­gent of work­ers it needed,” com­pany spokesman Gabe Gre­gory told The Com­pass on Mon­day, May 4.

Some 450 peo­ple are cur­rently em­ployed at the plant, mak­ing it one of the busiest in­shore pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties in the prov­ince. The com­pany ex­pe­ri­enced some labour chal­lenges last sea­son, and iden­ti­fied the need for 50 ad­di­tional work­ers. De­spite what Gre­gory de­scribed as an “ag­gres­sive” re­cruit­ing ef­fort, it was only able to find 30.

It was later granted ap­proval by the fed­eral govern­ment to bring in tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers to make up the short­fall, said Gre­gory.

They ar­rived last month, and are be­ing housed in com­pany owned ac­com­mo­da­tions in the area. Gre­gory ex­pects they’ll be on the job un­til the fall, when the fish­ing sea­son ends.

“They are now gain­fully em­ployed, do­ing var­i­ous pro­cess­ing jobs,” he ex­plained.

Lo­ca­tion a chal­lenge

Ac­cord­ing to the 2011 cen­sus, the pop­u­la­tion of Bay de Verde is just un­der 400. Dur­ing the fish­ing sea­son, its pop­u­la­tion swells dra­mat­i­cally.

The com­pany has been able to at­tract work­ers from var­i­ous re­gions of the prov­ince, but sev­eral fac­tors have con­tributed to the short­age, Gre­gory ex­plained.

He pointed to an ag­ing of the work­force, a shrink­ing pop­u­la­tion in ru­ral New­found­land, and the fact most young peo­ple are choos­ing not to work in the fish­ery.

The plant’s lo­ca­tion may also be a fac­tor. Bay de Verde is lo­cated in a sparsely pop­u­lated area at the very tip of the Bay de Verde Penin­sula, some 66 kilo­me­tres north of Car­bon­ear, and some 90-plus kilo- me­tres from Bay Roberts. This makes it dif­fi­cult for work­ers to com­mute, since the jobs are sea­sonal in na­ture, and pays roughly $12 per hour.

The com­pany also com­petes with other pro­cess­ing plants in nearby Old Per­li­can and else­where in Trin­ity South for em­ploy­ees.

Plant clo­sures

The tim­ing raised plenty of eye­brows and gen­er­ated head­lines last week, with some ques­tion­ing the need to im­port for­eign work­ers.

Just last month, the provin­cial govern­ment re­ceived writ­ten no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the per­ma­nent clo­sure of seven seafood pro­cess­ing plants through­out New­found­land and Labrador, re­sult­ing in hun­dreds of job losses.

And the un­em­ploy­ment rate for the en­tire Avalon Penin­sula was 14.4 per cent in April.

Gre­gory blamed a “fail­ure of pub­lic pol­icy” for cre­at­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Bay de Verde. He said the fish­ery is “highly reg­u­lated” by both lev­els of govern­ment, with the goal be­ing to em­ploy a max­i­mum num­ber of peo­ple for the short­est pe­riod of time in order to qual­ify for em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance ben­e­fits.

As a re­sult, the fish­ery has be­come very sea­sonal, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to move to where the jobs are, he said.

“Right now it’s about get­ting more peo­ple on the (EI) books,” he said.

He ex­pressed some hope that a se­ries of con­tro­ver­sial changes to the EI sys­tem will help the in­dus­try. But he also pre­dicted the com­pany may have to bring in for­eign work­ers again.

“This kind of re­quire­ment could grow. It de­pends on how quickly the in­dus­try can tran­si­tion to meet its labour needs,” he said, adding that each year, some five to eight per cent of the work­force reaches re­tire­ment age. He said the in­dus­try will ei­ther have to en­hance the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the cur­rent work­force, or “bring peo­ple into the ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.”

Cheap labour

An of­fi­cial with the Fish, Food and Al­lied Work­ers’ union (FFAW) stated pub­licly this week that the com­pany was be­ing per­mit­ted to im­port “cheap labour.”

FFAW off­shore vice-pres­i­dent Al­lan Moul­ton said it would cre­ate a “two-tiered sys­tem” and would “do noth­ing to build our economies and com­mu­ni­ties.”

“It’s cre­ates a huge gap that drives wages down,” Moul­ton told VOCM Open Line on May 4.

Oth­ers sug­gested that if the com­pany would pay higher wages, it would have bet­ter luck at­tract­ing work­ers.

Mean­while, Fish­eries Min­is­ter Darin King said the provin­cial govern­ment would con­sider mea­sures to help the sit­u­a­tion.

“If there are op­por­tu­ni­ties for other jobs, in other com­mu­ni­ties, then we’re pre­pared to work with those dis­placed work­ers to as­sist them in get­ting trans­porta­tion and ar­range­ments and things like that,” King told CBC News.

edi­tor@cb­n­com­pass.ca

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