ST. ANTHONY, N.L. – Work has been harder and harder to come by at St. Anthony Seafoods this season.
And questions abound around what the government plans to do to help these people make it through the next year.
As fewer shrimp are being processed due to quota cuts, workers at the plant are getting less work this season.
Shrimp fishing area 6 has received a 16 per cent cut while area 4R is down 15 per cent.
These are the two areas from which St. Anthony Seafoods processes shrimp.
Meanwhile, more harvesters have been selling shrimp, along with other species, to other plants at a better price.
Also, this year, they no longer have frozen shrimp to process, along with the fresh shrimp, to supplement their hours.
According to plant worker Trudy Byrne, there was 4.5 hours of shrimp production last week.
That hasn’t been uncommon since the plant opened on May 8, and she estimates 30 hours of production is about the most they’ve gotten in a single week so far this year.
Altogether Byrne estimates she’s gotten about 200 hours, and that includes a 40-hour week which was cleanup in preparation for the season.
And she doesn’t expect much more work to come by as most of the processing from area 4R (also known locally as “the gulf”) is finished.
“We had about four boats starting off (in the gulf) and we lost two of those,” said Byrne. “Then we were down to two and now they’re finished fishing there.”
In area 6, the total allowable catch is just 8,730 metric tonnes for inshore harvesters.
“I’m looking at partial weeks all the way through until the season is shut,” said Byrne.
“Everybody is stressed to the limit.”
She believes the majority of the, approximately, 90 employees at the plant, including her, won’t be able to get the 420 hours to be eligible for employment insurance (EI) at the end of the season.
Without EI, it will be hard for people to make it through the winter.
“It’s going to be worse this year than last year,” said Byrne.
She says unless government provides a program to supplement their income, many St. Anthony Seafoods employees may have to consider going on social security.
According to staff representative Jason Spingle, FFAW-Unifor is aware that work at the plant has been “minimal.”
The union echoes Byrne’s concerns over whether employees will be able to qualify for EI and, if they do qualify, whether they’ll still have enough income to last until next year.
Spingle says FFAW-Unifor wants to know what the government’s plan is for these individuals.
“People are going to need help,” he said. “Unless something dramatic changes, workers in St. Anthony are not going to qualify (for EI).
“This will be people who will have to choose between necessities like heat, food and medications. And how can you choose between those things? They’re necessities.”
According to Spingle, the union will push both the federal and provincial governments for a “reasonable” program that will provide “some form of livable wage” for struggling plant workers across the province.
Last year, the provincial government had a $5 million income support program for plant workers who didn’t qualify for EI.
Byrne says the government didn’t exhaust all the money, and some should have been left over.
However, she understands it won’t be available for them this year.
“They’re saying it’s no longer available. Don’t know what they did with it but it’s no longer available,” she said. “So, they told us to go to the federal government and see what they could do for us.”
She feels the province has “turned their back on us.”
'What can you do?'
Clearwater Seafoods has a 75 per cent share in St. Anthony Seafoods. The company responded to the Northern Pen’s enquiry on the future of the facility.
Clearwater says the reductions in shrimp total allowable catch has been a challenge, but believes it is the right thing to do for the long-term sustainability of the resource.
The company did not speak of any possibility of closure and says it is looking for opportunities to improve the viability of the plant.
“In 2018, we moved to a seasonal operation of the facility in line with standard practice in the industry. Looking forward, we are pursuing options to diversify our species and product mix with the expectation this will help with employment and overall plant utilization,” the company said. “Clearwater, together with our partner SABRI, have been operating in St. Anthony for more than 20 years and both believe adaptability to the changing environment will continue to be key to our success. We have great people in St. Anthony and while declining resources are reducing available work for our employees, they continue to be supportive of our business.”
However, Byrne is worried that other species are not plentiful either. She says the cod and capelin are in decline while mackerel and herring are “nothing great” either.
“If the supply is not there for any species, what can you do?” she asks.
That’s the question on many minds.