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Newfoundland fisheries minister, union trade barbs as workers lose jobs

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - More than 400 fish plant workers are out of work as their union leader and Newfoundland and Labrador's fisheries minister pointed fingers at each other Tuesday.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/12/2011 (4069 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – More than 400 fish plant workers are out of work as their union leader and Newfoundland and Labrador’s fisheries minister pointed fingers at each other Tuesday.

It’s the latest dust-up over what many observers say are long delayed decisions to restructure a fading fishery.

Earle McCurdy, head of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers representing harvesters and fish plant staff, is urging the province to use processing rules as leverage to protect jobs.

He said the province must stand up to companies such as Ocean Choice International that increasingly want to export whole fish to China, Japan and other markets.

“We believe that unless government steps in now, its ability to have any control whatsoever over the disposition of those really valuable public resources is lost for good,” McCurdy said after a news conference Tuesday.

“In very short order, there will be no restriction whatsoever on the company’s ability to ship every single pound … out of the province unprocessed. We’ll have no shore-based employment whatsoever in this province.”

Except where exemptions apply, Ocean Choice is required to land fish in the province and then follow minimum processing regulations along with restrictions on fish exports.

The company announced earlier this month it’s closing two seafood processing plants in Marystown and Port Union, costing 410 people their jobs.

The company blamed financial losses and other factors but said it would invest $5 million in other operations in Bonavista, Port aux Choix, Triton, St. Lawrence and Fortune.

It has offered to nearly double the workforce at the plant in Fortune — creating 110 full-time jobs onshore plus 150 jobs at sea — but there’s a catch. Those plans are contingent on the company’s request that, by Dec. 31, the province extend or grant exemptions to export unprocessed redfish and yellowtail fish to Asian markets that want less filleted product.

Under the proposal, the Fortune plant would process about one-quarter of the overall yellowtail catch, or just over three million kilograms. The other 75 per cent would be handled at sea and shipped straight to market.

Ocean Choice has also asked for an extension of its existing exemption on redfish, first granted in 2008, which expires at the end of the year. The company has said it makes no economic sense to process redfish onshore for Japanese markets that want fish headed and gutted, not filleted.

An external review of the company’s operations by the audit firm Deloitte, released in part last month, found that the company had lost almost $10 million at the Marystown plant over the last three years.

But McCurdy said the terms of reference for the review were “fatally flawed” to skew the true picture by not including the value of redfish, for example.

He is asking to see the full report and terms of reference. He also suggested there’s more than enough fish to keep both the Marystown and Fortune plants operating seasonally.

Fisheries Minister Darin King responded to McCurdy at a news conference on Tuesday, accusing the union leader of spreading “false hope” and “pushing propaganda.”

King said the province has invested heavily in the fishery and will help unemployed workers get back on their feet.

The minister said he has not yet decided on Ocean Choice’s proposal for Fortune and its request for processing exemptions.

But he said the union needs to talk realistically about the fishery.

“There are going to be plant closures. There is going to be pain.

“I have the greatest empathy in the world for what people are going through here.”

King said the union is wrong to say the Burin Peninsula can support two seasonal fish plants.

The company’s proposal, with exemptions, means employment that would not exist otherwise, he added.

“This is a very tough debate to get into without hurting people further,” King said. “But the fact of the matter is, we cannot force businesses in this province to operate at a loss.

“I can simply say no to exemptions and we may do that, who knows where we’ll be at the end of this process? But what does that achieve, is the question I’m raising.”

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