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Still looking for answers
Nearly five months have passed since the town of Black Duck Cove watched its fish plant go up in flames.
For the 70-plus employees left without permanent jobs, it’s been five frustrating months of looking for answers and coming up empty.
Plant owners have yet to say whether they plan to rebuild or not, leaving little sense to what the future may look like for Black Duck Cove and surrounding communities.
On May 15 this year, the Gulf Shrimp plant in Black Duck Cove was destroyed in a fire, leaving the Straits area of the Great Northern Peninsula without one of its primary employers.
It employed people from throughout the region.
Since then, it's been a holding pattern.
While short-term job opportunities have appeared in various places, no one has found permanent employment.
Everyone is still waiting for an answer from the plant owners before deciding what to do next.
About 30 plant workers met with The Northern Pen at the St. Barbe Fire Hall on Sept. 30 to discuss what the last few months have been like and what happens next.
“We’re ready for answers right now,” plant worker and union rep Eva Applin told The Northern Pen. “For four months, I think we’ve been pretty patient.”
As they wait for a decision, she says they’re living in fear and questioning their future.
“We’re hoping for the best but we’re fearing the worst,” she said. “And what do you do? Do you sell homes? Do you move?”
The hope, of course, is the company will rebuild.
Those in attendance felt that a multi-species plant would work in Black Duck Cove.
Gulf Shrimp Ltd., the company that ran the plant, is owned by QuinSea Fisheries Ltd and Quinlan Brothers Ltd.
There has been little communication between those company and plant workers since May.
Neither company responded to The Northern Pen’s request for an interview or statement.
A trying summer
It’s been a difficult summer for the workers.
Even though Gulf Shrimp Ltd. committed to finding work for all of its employees, many were left seeking jobs elsewhere.
At the time of the fire, the company offered jobs for displaced plant workers at its production facilities in Old Perlican nearly 1,000 kilometres away.
“Employment will require temporary relocation, however, the company will provide accommodation and relocation allowances for all of its employees to ensure they secure meaningful employment,” a May 16 Gulf Shrimp Ltd press release read.
The company claimed the Old Perlican facility could accommodate the entire Black Duck Cove workforce.
However, only 11 plant workers made the journey there.
Four of them returned home after a few weeks.
Everyone else was left to seek employment elsewhere.The remaining seven got their hours to qualify for employment insurance benefits (EI) and were laid off on Sept 11.
They felt the company made an empty promise.
Applin says there simply wasn’t enough work available for them in Old Perlican.
“It simply wasn’t feasible,” she said.
Matilda Williams left behind her family when she moved across the island to find work for 15 weeks.For those who did go to Old Perlican, and stayed through the summer, it wasn’t always easy.
“It was stressful, I was on two minds with the kids left home,” she told The Northern Pen.
But she didn’t want to stay and join a make-work program with some of the others, because she didn’t think it would be enough.
Working on programs
Fifteen of them did stay behind and were employed through the province’s Impacted Fish Plant Worker program.
They started work on renovating the local fire hall in July.
It will get them to the 420 hours they need to draw EI.
However, the situation is still precarious.
They told The Northern Pen the wages are low at $11.40 an hour and what they’ll draw on EI, with 420 hours, isn’t enough to live on.
“You’re lucky if you get $400 every two weeks,” said Applin.
Some travel from more 40 kilometres away, from communities such as Eddies Cove and Reefs Harbour, to earn the hours.
And Applin points out any workers have young families and mortgages to pay.
Meanwhile, at least 600 hours of insurable employment are needed to qualify for EI sickness benefits.
In other words, there are no sick benefits available to anyone working on the program.
If someone takes sick or gets injured, they get nothing.
Christopher Mitchelmore, the Advanced Skills, Education and Labour (AESL) Minister, as well as the St. Barbe – L’Anse aux Meadows MHA, says when the 420 hours is up, workers have the option to continue working on a job creation partnership (JCP).
“Once people complete that program, they could apply for their EI and receive it, but they also have the option to apply to work on the JCP,” he told The Northern Pen. “If they feel their earnings based on their EI, after being on the Impact Fish Plant Worker program, is too low, they have the option of being employed on the JCP and continue working.”
This would allow them to potentially earn the equivalent of maximum EI, he says.
A few job opportunities through JCPs are available in the area, including continued work on the fire hall, work on the nearby St. Barbe Arena, upgrades to Shoal Cove West fishers’ sheds and properties, upgrades to the Bird Cove 50 Centuries Community Center, and the construction of a generator shed in Anchor Point.
But Applin points out it still won’t give people enough hours to cover them for sick benefits.
She also adds that work on the JCP is not an exact equivalent to maximum EI.
On maximum EI, they would clear $966 every two weeks, whereas on the JCP they will clear a little over $800.
Others found work at nearby fish plants in towns such as Anchor Point, Port au Choix and St. Anthony, while some found work in unrelated fields.
Nancy Gibbons went to work at the plant in Anchor Point.
It was the first time she has ever had to go on clean up.
“It’s been stressful,” she told The Northern Pen. “But I’d rather be in Anchor Point than Old Perlican.”
Cliff Cabot says the summer was rough at first until he got a call to go to work in St. Anthony.
He says he was treated well, but he still had to incur gas expenses, driving for 90 minutes to St. Anthony every day.
Plant workers felt concerned about the long-term sustainability of the region without this industry.
She also questioned why government wasn’t investing money into industry and jobs that are more sustainable than JCPs and make work programs.“Where is the strong infrastructure going to be here to sustain these communities from Eddies Cove East to Eddies Cove West?” asked Applin. “One business coming out of this area is detrimental to the overall economy.”
“If the government can come out with $1.5 million for the Northern Peninsula on JCPs, why don’t they put it in a more sustainable industry?” she asked.
MHA and AESL Minister Mitchelmore says the provincial government is waiting like the workers to see what Gulf Shrimp Ltd. will do.
“Much of the longer-term solution would depend on the company and what they’re going to do,” he said.
Mitchelmore hopes a decision will be made soon and the company will decide to rebuild a plant in Black Duck Cove.
“We anticipate the company will make a decision in the near future,” he said. “It’s been a number of months and I think it’s certainly getting time for the company to make their intentions known.”
Mitchelmore says any impacted plant workers who has concerns, ideas, or issues they want to discuss can contact him at any time.
His office number is 454-2633.