GREAT NORTHERN PENINSULA, N.L.
The future is precarious for plant workers in St. Anthony – unless something changes fast.
Audrey Patey, a worker at St. Anthony Seafoods, acknowledges some plant employees, herself included, face a harsh reality.
“I guess most workers are going to have to go elsewhere to look for work,” she told The Northern Pen. “Leave their homes and go away.”
For many at St. Anthony Seafoods, June and July passed this year without receiving a call.
In August, there was a small flicker of hope as the plant began taking cod for processing, marking the first time northern cod was processed at a St. Anthony plant since the 1992 moratorium.
However, workers struggling the most were not the ones to benefit. Most of the work went to those with seniority, many of whom already qualified for employment insurance (EI).
While they worked on the cod, some of the struggling workers were called in to do the shrimp. But it wasn’t a lot.
Patey was one of those employees. She got 27 hours of work out of that, grossing $450.
Shrimp production is finished at the St. Anthony plant for 2018 and that represented all the hours she worked at the plant the entire summer.
It’s a long way away from the 420 hours she needs to qualify for EI that will help her through the winter.
Patey, 56, has made her home in nearby St. Lunaire-Griquet her entire life.
She’s worked at the plant for the past 19 years. It was just a couple of years ago, she said, she was getting 600 hours a season.
Then came drastic cuts to shrimp quotas, meaning less shrimp for the inshore boats that supply the plant.
If the St. Anthony plant can’t find something to replace the shrimp, Patey has a hard time seeing how she can continue making a living on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula.
Her husband works seasonally as a carpenter at Churchill Falls but his income alone would not be enough to sustain their livelihood. She needs to work, too.
And there are not many other opportunities for long-term employment in the region.
At least for this year, there are provincial government work programs.
The Northern Pen has learned the Town of St. Lunaire-Griquet will act as sponsor for the 2018-19 Impacted Fish Plant Worker Program to help some St. Anthony Seafoods employees get the 400 hours they require to qualify for EI.
In July, the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment announced a $2.5-million program, focused on creating short-term employment for workers from fish plants deemed impacted by the downturn in the fishing sector.
St. Anthony Seafoods employees will be able to submit resumés to the Town of St. Lunaire-Griquet to seek work.
St. Lunaire-Griquet mayor Dale Colbourne felt it was an easy decision to make for the town.
“We can’t let these people go with no hours for the winter, we just can’t do it,” she told The Northern Pen. “It wasn’t much of a decision to be made.”
The town is in the process of determining what jobs will be available.
Colbourne says there’s a lot of little projects that needs to be done around town, for instance work on the playground and ballfield.
It isn’t known yet when work will start.
Trudy Byrne, a plant worker and the FFAW-Unifor representative at St. Anthony Seafoods, has been acting on behalf of the workers since August, trying to procure a program.
She believes things should be moving faster, given how desperate the situation is, with 32 to 34 workers needing anywhere from 25 to 390 hours to qualify for EI.
“These people are in desperate need of those programs to start as they have zero income and EI exhausted since April for most of them,” she told The Northern Pen. “Since the $2.5 million was allotted early on in the season for plant-worker support, it should have been readily available before now.”
The Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment released a statement to The Northern Pen indicating it had sent applications to potential sponsors, the Town of St. Lunaire-Griquet as well as the St. Anthony Port Authority.
Those applications will be processed immediately upon return, the department said.
Cuts in shrimp
Patey will be applying for work through a program. Without that, she says she doesn’t know what she would do or how she would get through the winter.
Even so, it will only provide the bare minimum.
“We’ll survive the winter, that’s about it,” she added. “You won’t have no luxuries.”
While she’s pleased to have some support, she doesn’t believe the programs get to the root of the problem.
Patey, as other plant workers and local harvesters have reported to The Northern Pen in previous stories, feel the shrimp resource has been overfished by the offshore sector.
“They’re letting those factory freezers fish all year round and then the inshore fishery is getting cut back, cut back and cut back,” she said, a palpable sense of frustration in her voice. “They’re letting the factory freezers do all this fishing and the inshore fishermen got to do without.”
Shrimp cuts to the inshore fishery have hit plant workers hard.
The last two years, quota cuts in the inshore fishery have meant substantially less shrimp to process at plants like St. Anthony Seafoods.
In shrimp fishing area 6, the quota was cut 62.5 per cent in 2017 and an additional 16 per cent in 2018.
The total allowable catch was just 8,730 metric tonnes for inshore harvesters this year.
Most of the shrimp processed at St. Anthony Seafoods comes from the inshore source.
Without drastic changes to increase employment, Patey is worried about the long-term sustainability of communities like St. Lunaire-Griquet on the Great Northern Peninsula.
If more and more people have to move away to find work, she ponders, what will remain.
“What’s going to become of those communities?” she asked. “It’s all going to be ghost towns. A few older people and that’s all that will be left because everybody else has to leave.”