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Keith Sullivan Responds to Derek Butler Letter

July 14, 2022

July 14, 2022

This letter is in response to Derek Butler, “Fishery chaos, 2022: lather, rinse, repeat,” published on Monday, July 11, 2022. According to Mr. Butler, fish harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador are living like kings and queens while the poor processing companies struggle to balance the books. It’s a tale that’s been spun by Butler and his cronies with the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP) since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ah yes, Derek Butler, champion of corporate profits, knows much about the rich shrimp harvesters of the Northern Peninsula (who, by the way, have no access to crab). They haven’t been able to sell their shrimp for enough to make ends meet, while the same companies buy the exact same product for over 50 per cent more at their facilities in Quebec.

Because other than the Royal Greenland plant in St. Anthony processing industrial offshore shrimp, no inshore shrimp plant workers are getting work this year thanks to the greed of processing companies. No sea cucumber is being processed thanks to the greed of the processing companies. And now we face the same threat with capelin, again, thanks to the greed of the processing companies.

Something that should be posed of Mr. Butler: if a plant is shut down, who is benefitting? It certainly isn’t the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It isn’t harvesters who are entirely reliant on local plants purchasing their product. It isn’t plant workers who rely on the plant operating for at least 14 weeks a year. It isn’t the thousands of other related industries that rely or supplement the inshore fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.

But of course, for Derek Butler it is the fault of unions and worker organizing causing the current upheaval in the inshore fishery. Derek Butler and his ASP members are focused singularly on one thing: sowing discord and creating controversy between fish harvesters and plant workers – both of whom just want to make a decent living in the fishery.


Transparency in Price Setting

As it currently stands, the collective bargaining process puts fish harvesters on more equal footing with processing companies. FFAW committees comprised of volunteer harvesters work during individual species negotiations to assess available market information, attempt to negotiate with ASP, and, if no agreement is made, put forward a fair offer at the Fish Price Setting Panel. The Panel then selects either the FFAW or ASP final price, with each party being given the opportunity to appeal once per season.

Certainly, the Panel system is not perfect and can be improved upon – with more transparency.

Unfortunately, we can only work with the information we have available to us, and that information is very limited due to the closely guarded secrets of ASP member companies.

Information like product yields and prices received at market are not divulged by companies – because that would mean the true value of company gouging would be known by all.

In fisheries like halibut and lobster, harvesters are paid based on a value that is reassessed weekly or bi-weekly based on actual market prices. Fish harvesters are generally satisfied with this format of pricing, given the transparency and fairness that is assessed by true market indicators. We have proposed similar formulas for snow crab and other species, but ASP has refused any meaningful progress on this since it would further shrink the divide between merchants and harvesters.

This year, processors will tell you that harvesters asked for too much money for capelin, despite a 30% decrease in prices this season.  Processing companies offered a price that was only a fraction of what prices were in previous years, with prices as low as 2 cents per pound listed for smaller sizes.  That is not a typo.  2 cents per pound for fresh seafood in 2022!

Of course, Derek Butler blames the problem on harvesters and the Panel when in reality it’s the stranglehold that the few processing companies have over the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery and the refusal of our government to act.


Oversupply & Inadequate Capacity

It’s a simple fact that there is not enough processing capacity to support the current snow crab fishery in our province. This year’s quota of 110 million pounds is a far cry from the 52 million it was just 3 years ago.

Contrary to what Mr. Butler would have folks believe, adding additional processing capacity for snow crab will not take away any current processing jobs – it will create new jobs for people in our rural communities and ease significant trip limitations and scheduling constraints imposed by companies on harvesters.

Provincial Minister Derek Bragg’s decision to increase snow crab capacity by a mere 3% and attempt to pass it off as a win for the people of the province shows just how blatantly our politicians are in the pocket of companies.

In reality, the lack of capacity to handle other species is costing both harvesters and plant workers.  Of course, what Mr. Butler doesn’t like to admit is that the reason his member companies don’t want additional processing licenses granted means it will dilute the shares and control of the few corporations who currently own the lion’s share.


Corporate Concentration & Influence

In Newfoundland and Labrador, there was a time when the processing sector was largely represented by local independent processing plants in communities across the province. However, over time and more intensely in recent years, larger companies have purchased these independent companies, concentrating more processing licenses in the hands of a few larger companies.

Now, a small handful of companies control the vast majority of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery. These companies exert control over harvesters by dictating when they can fish and for how much, and the harvester cannot sell elsewhere.

They collude amongst each other to shut down entire fisheries, locking harvesters out of fisheries and plant workers out of work, as they attempt to drive down prices paid out.

When you have multi-million-dollar corporations lobbying all levels of government, those on the ground must mobilize or face certain destruction. Because let’s be abundantly clear: if given the choice, these few corporations would not land a single pound of seafood in our province if given the alterative to process it for cheaper elsewhere. And they would certainly prefer to fish it themselves on their factory boats rather than buy it from fish harvesters in the inshore fishery, or through the many illegal controlling agreements that still exist today.


Unions for Better

Unions have a long history of making tangible gains for workers, and in 2022 there is more need for unionism than ever before. Since the pandemic, companies are profiting more than ever while working class people are losing more and more. Inflation and rising fuel costs have led to food and housing crises, and the wage gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

Derek Butler and his ASP member companies would love nothing more than to roll back the gains that have been made through collective bargaining. For plant workers, it means attempting to roll back wages, benefits and working conditions.

In fish price negotiations, ASP would love to further decrease transparency, abandon collective bargaining, discard fair wages, and throw away a Panel to drive us back to the merchant era where processors will tell fishermen when to fish and how much (or how little) they will be paid.

But Mr. Butler needn’t worry. We aren’t going anywhere.

Keith Sullivan, FFAW-Unifor