Ocean Choice International and workers at its money-losing Marystown fish plant will be meeting Monday to discuss ways of turning the business around, but the president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers' union (FFAW) local in Marystown says exporting more fish from the province shouldn't be on the table.
Ocean Choice chief operating officer Blaine Sullivan told The Telegram recently that the plant is hamstrung by rising fuel prices as well as a stronger Canadian dollar, which hampers the export market.
"In order to be able to maintain some on-land processing, we have to export more fish, and basically the two solutions that we put forward sees the exact same amount of labour paid out on the Burin Peninsula to our employees in the area," Sullivan said.
But local union president Allan Moulton says exporting more fish - Ocean Choice wants to ship 80 per cent of its yellowtail quota out of province - isn't the answer.
"We certainly recognize ... the difficulty associated with the high dollar, and the fuel costs and that kind of stuff. Any company who's exporting their products into the U.S. today are faced with those kinds of challenges, and we certainly acknowledge that it's tough," he said Tuesday. "Having said that, I do want to point out that this has been extremely tough, not only on the company but for the employees who work for the company."
Moulton pointed out that the base rate for workers in the Marystown plant in 2004 was $13.66 an hour. Today it's $13.45. "That's 21 cents an hour less than what workers worked for seven years ago. So workers are seeing not only less wages and less benefits, but that means less income than they had seven years ago - they see the cost of living escalating too.
"When they pull into the pumps. When they fill up their oil tanks in the wintertime, they know where the cost of fuel has gone, because they're living it every single day.
"They've done everything humanly possible to help get this company through some of these difficult times."
Last year, the company was granted an exemption to ship yellowtail weighing less than 450 grams out of the province, an exemption that has now expired - and one Moulton said was a bad idea at the time.
"Nobody in the room felt it was the right thing to do. And every time we got a problem in the industry, the only solution can't always be to ship out the fish unprocessed to create the job somewhere else. But looking at the entire situation, the competition they had on the under-450 from the yellowfin sole, we very reluctantly agreed that if it meant 35 weeks of work at the plant for the 230, 250 people that work at the plant, we reluctantly agreed to do that," he said.
"So that's only just over a year ago, and to come back now and want to ship more fish out of the province, and put - the initial suggestion was 14 weeks' work into the plant - that will ultimately close the plant in Marystown, because you won't get any of the key people staying around.
"A lot of people have already left, and there's no maintenance people or skilled people with opportunities out there today going to sit around for 14 weeks' work at the plant. That's the ultimate stepping stone to shut the plant for sure."
The company and the workers are in talks to figure out ways to turn the plant's economic fortunes around, including meeting Monday in Marystown. Provincial Fisheries Minister Clyde Jackman has said the province is prepared to help as much as possible to get the plant up and running.
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