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Barriers to Federal EI Support Continue to Layer

May 11, 2023

Further to the update provided earlier this week detailing actions undertaken by your Union to secure opportunities for federal government to support impacted NL seasonal fishery workers, requests continue to be met with obstacles and objections.

As noted in the update on May 9th, officials from Minister Qualtrough’s office have confirmed that the current EI system is so heavy and rules based with convoluted classifications for seasonal workers that an extension on existing claims would not be effectively processed on a timeline that would benefit members during the season.

In a virtual meeting with Mike Kelloway, Parliamentary Secretary to Minister Joyce Murray, on Monday May 8th, there may be potential to launch an application-based program for funding from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) serviced through DFO, but confirmation on how and if such measures can be scaled up quickly is still unknown. It is also unlikely that this program would be made available to plant workers, whose work capacity has been directly crippled in the absence of local landings to process.

A meeting with the federal NL Liberal Caucus took place on the evening of May 9th, during which FFAW-Unifor President Greg Pretty spoke to the severity of conditions for enterprise owners, crew, and plant workers. FFAW IRO Council member for OCI Bonavista, Barry Randell, attended the call to share insights on behalf of plant workers from a first-person perspective. Randell stressed the increasing desperation with many now weeks without any protections or income as a casualty of no local snow crab landings. Caucus stated that they must look at things from a national lens, and the difficulty they are having is that the snow crab fishery remains opened but is just not being pursued. It was emphasized by FFAW that the conditions impacting thousands of workers in the NL industry right now is not a strike, it is a cautious and difficult decision based on economic viability that is having a chain reaction through the sector.

When it was raised by FFAW how quickly relief programming was launched by federal government in COVID, Caucus explained that these measures were expedited quickly and robustly because it was a global crisis that was detrimental to every worker in every industry. However, FFAW made it clear that global circumstances are the causation of our current crisis. While Japan did impose economic sanctions, including banning imports of vodka and lumber, on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in 2021, marine products were exempted as Tokyo deemed the adverse effect on domestic businesses would be too great. Tokyo has pushed back on claims that its trade decisions are undermining G7 sanctions — or that they are having much of an effect on the Canadian industry. As a result, snow crab accounted for the highest value of imports from Russia last year at 32.6 billion yen. The increase is likely due to Russian exporters shifting to Japan after being banned from the U.S. and other Western markets.

This has resulted in snow crab prices dropping in Newfoundland and Labrador from $7.60 per pound at the start of the 2022 season to an opening price of $2.20 in 2023. With operational costs for enterprises substantially raised with inflation, harvesters are now assuming all of the risk by pursuing the fishery at the price of $2.20/lb when that risk should be shared in balance with processors.

On EI extensions in particular, Caucus established that the EI systems and processes cannot be overridden to make exceptions for exclusive groups of workers.

Pushback continued with Caucus indicating that another difficulty is that harvesters are landing snow crab in the Gulf for $2.20/lb while NL harvesters have decided to remain tied to the wharf for the same price. Pretty was quick to educate Caucus on the substantial differences in our fishery and that of the Gulf, notably that those enterprise owners do not pay into workers compensation and EI programs, they are ununionized and have to accept whatever price is offered, and, most importantly, there is a co-op dynamic in place there with many harvesters owning their own plants and the ability to exercise control over that supply chain.

Caucus concluded the meeting by affirming that they will continue to advocate for industry support through the various federal government departments we have approached. While their advocacy is well received, problem-solving must be facilitated instead of upholding barriers.

Another recent effort to get federal government support in place was a request made for harvesters impacted by the delayed opening of the fishery due to severe ice conditions to avail on the Ice Assistance Emergency Program. The request was directed to Minister Karina Gould of the Department of Families, Children and Social Development on May 9th. A response has not yet been received.

FFAW continues to work to propose innovative solutions to the unique adversities the 2023 season has presented for the thousands of members engaged in the seasonal fishery. Ongoing updates will be provided to members when available.