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Letter: Bona fide fish harvesters have lost faith in the system

FISH-NL reached its GoFundMe goal to raise $16,000 after five days Wednesday afternoon. FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary said the breakaway group continues to receive support from around the province.
FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary. - SaltWire Network

After 500-plus years of fishing history, the Newfoundland and Labrador government — through its Labour Relations Board — has finally defined an inshore fisherman.

The definition doesn’t involve trips to sea nor fish landed. From the board’s perspective, that’s irrelevant.

The definition also doesn’t factor in whether a person even lives in the province, has a full-time job outside the fishery, or has ever stepped aboard a boat.

To be considered a fisherman/woman in the eyes of the board, the only criteria is that a person must have paid dues to the FFAW-Unifor.

Only that definition doesn’t hold water within the dynamics and practices of today’s fishery, which renders the board’s definition of an inshore harvester out of whack.

When a skipper sells his catch, the fish processor is provided with a list of crew/people to be paid from the proceeds. The processor, in turn, automatically deducts FFAW dues in the name of each person on the list, and remits the money to the union.

In January 2017, the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP) wrote the Labour Relations Board to recommend consideration be given to the definition of a fisherman.

ASP cited the following example: “The enterprise owner may decide to pay someone from the catch proceeds who has not participated as crew in a voyage, a common practice in the industry.”

Related story:

Labour relations board dismisses FISH-NL certification application

Questions have been raised whether people (possibly thousands) who have fish sales in their names have any connection to a catch.

Some hard questions must be asked — on all sides.

How can bona fide fishermen decide their future when they may be outnumbered by people with little or no connection to the fishery?

Instead of taking responsibility for its actions, the board blamed FISH-NL for the 21 months it took to rule on the application, because we didn’t explain how we came to the conclusion there were 4,500 harvesters in the province.

The board was informed the number was FISH-NL’s best guess, considering the definition of harvester didn’t exist.

The board also said FISH-NL failed to identify “who FISH-NL believes the members of the proposed bargaining unit are.”

Again, that’s because FISH-NL had no idea. The board ordered the FFAW’s list not to be released for confidentiality reasons, and ultimately accepted its validity without reservation.

FISH-NL’s best guess as to the number of harvesters was just over 6,300 — the number of people in receipt of fishing EI in February 2015 (less offshore trawlermen).

Some 10 months after FISH-NL submitted its application, the board released a list of 6,300 names (no addresses nor contact information), and asked us to verify that the people were inshore harvesters.

FISH-NL circulated the thousands of names to our trusted members around the province, but the task soon proved impossible. Harvesters aren’t private eyes, and weren’t comfortable investigating thousands of names to determine whether they were true harvesters.

The question isn’t why FISH-NL “vastly underestimated” the number of harvesters, but why the Labour Relations Board went along with the FFAW-Unifor’s “vastly overestimated” number.

Thousands of bona fide harvesters have lost faith in a system that seems to protect the rights of union executive members over rank-and-file workers.

Of even greater concern is that both the federal and provincial governments, along with the broader Canadian labour movement and the province’s media, have failed to investigate harvesters’ concerns.

Ryan Cleary,

President, FISH-NL

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