March 2, 2022
The Union representing fish harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador is calling on the provincial government to address serious concerns regarding the selection of a new Independent Chair of the Standing Price Setting Panel as well as rules that govern the Panel itself.
This week, the Minister responsible for Labour Relations announced that David Lewis will become the new independent chair of the Standing Fish Price Setting Panel. The Panel is a critical component of labour relations in the fishery and arbitrated prices in 2021 for a landed value in excess of $800 million.
“As we have stated repeatedly to the provincial government over the past several years, the integrity of the Fish Price Setting Panel must be beyond reproach. With the high degree of corporate concentration in the processing sector and the disappearance of wharf competition, the Panel’s decision on price becomes the de facto price for harvesters,” says Keith Sullivan, President of FFAW-Unifor. “As such, the Chair of the Panel must be clearly independent with no hint of bias.”
FFAW is concerned that Lewis fails to meet that important standard. Lewis spent most of his career in the provincial department of fisheries, which primary regulates the processing sector and promotes the value of the fishery. As a result, Lewis worked primarily with processing companies, addressing their concerns on competitiveness, profitability, and efficiency. His experience comes primarily from one end of the sector. Compounding this concern is that Lewis started his career working at the Fishery Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (FANL), which was the organization that promoted processor interests and is the precursor to the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP).
“At the very least, the province should have consulted with FFAW and ASP prior to making this decision in order to assess if there were any concerns with the selection,” Sullivan says. “We also believe that there is a strong roster of qualified and trained arbitrators that could be used this year until a permanent chair is selected. These individuals have conducted arbitrations, which is experience we do not know Mr. Lewis has.”
Compounding harvester frustration over this selection is the failure of the provincial government to address changes needed to the collective bargaining process in the fishery.
“First and foremost, the province needs to amend the regulation for the Fishing Industry Collective Bargaining Act to allow for a second price reconsideration,” says Robert Keenan, FFAW-Unifor Secretary Treasurer. “We have been pushing this as the top priority for more than two years, especially after the 2020 crab season highlighted the lack of flexibility to the Panel process during difficult times. With corporate concentration, there needs to be the ability to adjust pricing to meet the market more than one time per year.”
“We have also asked the province to require processors to report more information as part of the conditions for holding a processing license. A processing license places companies in a very privileged position. This privilege is granted not to protect the profits of the processor but to keep the value of the fishery at the local level. As such, disclosing the value of domestic sales, pack outs, and processing yields should be treated as a public accounting to ensure fairness in the economics of the fishery,” Keenan notes.
“We are on the cusp of another strong year in the fishery with high landed values and volume. The FFAW hoped that the negotiation season would proceed smoothly but unfortunately that may no longer be the case. The province has undermined the Panel by facilitating corporate concentration, by failing to address the Union’s request for procedural change, and now by selecting someone to Chair the Panel whom harvesters do not believe is truly independent,” concludes Sullivan.
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