Ocean Choice is proposing a new plan for redfish and flatfish that it says will inject $750 million into the provincial economy over the next five years, but the union isn't biting.
CEO Martin Sullivan and chief operating officer Blaine Sullivan announced the details of the new plan Friday at the company's St. John's head office. The plan involves landing seven million pounds of flatfish a year - about 25 per cent of the total annual catch - for processing at the company's plant in Fortune. The rest would be - if approved by the government - sold whole primarily to markets in Europe and Asia, says the company, which estimates the plan would be worth $115 million annually in the provincial economy. The plan also sees the company asking the provincial government for a permanent exemption for at-sea processing of redfish, which it says would be worth $35 million per year. Taken together, says Ocean Choice, the plan means more than 300 year-round jobs.
"The decision to operate Fortune is a compromise for us," said Blaine Sullivan, reading from prepared remarks. "It will cost us $800,000 per year in the first couple of years until we can make the operation profitable. Given all the circumstances of the past days and weeks, we have decided that the investment in Fortune is the right thing to do. We feel a responsibility to the people of the Burin Peninsula."
Ocean Choice said if the company receives the exemptions, it will invest $1.5 million in the Fortune plant to make it a year-round facility to process cod and greysole during the winter and flatfish the rest of the year.
But Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union that represents the company's workers, scoffed at calling Ocean Choice's proposal a compromise.
"The issue about the so-called option to export all the fish out unprocessed was never anything other than a straw man," he said. "They knew that that would never be endorsed by anybody and never had any intention or dream of that going through, and that was purely set up to kind of tilt the outcome towards the other option."
McCurdy also said Ocean Choice's new plan includes "not one pound more going through a plant, and not one extra millisecond of labour" more than the company's offer that Marystown workers rejected in August.
"Our issue was never about location. It was about the loss of employment in the deep sea fishery that used to be such a mainstay. This is the beginning of the end for processing of groundfish in the province, if the province goes through with it."
On Dec. 2, the company announced it would be permanently closing its plants in Marystown and Port Union, putting 410 people out of work, but Blaine Sullivan couldn't say if any of those workers would be put back to work for the company under its new plan, stressing the company's talks with the union and government to arrange a transition program for laid-off workers.
"Fortune is a separate operation. It's unfortunate the Marystown operation didn't work. We gave it our best effort and it's been a long process. Unfortunately, we have to move on. We will over the next several days be trying to include a transition fund for these workers," he said. "There's already quite a number of people at Fortune. There may be some possibility there that could possibly be explored. I wouldn't want to hold out a lot of hope there, because there is quite a few people in Fortune."
Martin Sullivan said there are currently 60 to 70 people working seasonally at the Fortune plant, and its new plan would bump that number to 110 working year-round, with 150 jobs at sea, in addition to the 50 at-sea jobs fishing redfish. Sullivan said adding year-round employment to the fishery is the only way to attract young workers to the industry.
"We haven't hired young people in our plants and our vessels for 20 years. The only place young people want to work now is in the head office or sales offices. So we have to get young people back in our business, or in five to 10 years we won't have any of them to work, and this is part of that plan, we feel."
But McCurdy wasn't putting any stock in the company's multi-year commitment in Fortune, either, pointing out that the company closed the Marystown plant just a year and half after processing exemptions there were supposed to lead to a brighter future for the plant.
"Those planned assurances and those glowing predictions from OCI have not panned out in the past, and quite frankly this seems to be no different," he said.
The company submitted the plan to Fisheries Minister Darin King Friday morning, said Martin Sullivan, and the company hopes to hear a response by the end of the year. A spokesman for King said Friday afternoon the minister wasn't available, but that he is reviewing the plan and hopes to have an answer by the new year.
In the meantime, the union has been meeting with its affected workers in Marystown and Port Union, and is expected to continue talks with the company next week, although McCurdy is pessimistic about achieving anything. He also said the union's own accountant has doubts about the audit of the Marystown plant, which concluded Ocean Choice has lost $10 million there over the last three years.
"We've requested a copy of the full audit, including the detailed financial statements and the projections, and a copy of the implementation agreement between the government and the company that was signed in 2007, and also a copy of the terms of reference of the audit, because quite frankly, we think government really blew it in the terms of reference by not having the return from the redfish factored into the equation," he said.
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