Monday, July 21, 2008

Dwindling hours for shoreworkers in a terrible season, don't bode well for the fall

The big Canfisco Oceanside plant at the foot of Drydock Road and George Hills Ways isn’t near as busy as it has been in past years. A situation that is indicative of a changing fishery for the north coast and a dire situation for local shoreworkers who now scramble for days and weeks of work rather than months. The largest processing plant on the coast is working at a far cry from it's regular capacity and the indications seem to be pointing to the troubled year continuing through July and into August.

While there have been a few local gillnet openings on the north coast, the returns haven’t provided any bonanza of jobs for those that work the fish washing and canning lines at the Prince Rupert Plant on the east side of the city.

At peak times Canfisco provides a good number of the spring and summer jobs in the city, where round the clock shifts of twelve hours were not uncommon when the fish were cooperating, but this year is certainly something different as the sockeye season seems to be in question and the next big question that has begun to circulate is “Where are the pinks?”

The shortage of the main supply for the canning lines could prove to be a very disturbing situation when shoreworkers go to apply for their EI claims this year, leading to a situation where they very well may be denied Employment benefits for the fall and winter months.

The Daily News featured the latest developments in a front page story which examines the disappointing season so far and the impact that the lack of work will have later on this year for local shore workers and their families.

Many fear they will not qualify for EI this winter thanks to lack of working hours
By Kris Schumacher
The Daily News
Monday, July 21, 2008
Pages one and three

With several commercial gillnet openings on the Skeena River last week, local fishermen are at least getting the chance to earn a livelihood in what is being described as one of the worst sockeye salmon seasons in more than 30 years.

What is also of great concern to residents of Prince Rupert is the absence of pink salmon found so far by seine fishermen, since ht city’s fishing plants rely on pinks for canning.

“The sockeye were a week late, so we’re just hoping the pinks are going to be late,” said Joy Thorkelson, northern representative for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union.

“Canadian Fish (Canfisco) worked one week on Bristol Bay salmon, and this week they were closed down because there are no fish. Ocean Fish are brining in chum salmon from Alaska, which are a fresh fish and not a canning fish, and that’s the only reason they are working.”

In 2006, Thorkelson said it was the grimmest season she had ever seen, but she said that from the way things have been going so far in 2008, this year could end up being even worse. This season is proving devastating for the hundreds of people employed at the fish plants, some of whom have yet to work a shift.

Another serious problem for shoreworkers is that every year it has become more and more difficult for them to collect Employment Insurance, to the point where very few are able to accumulate the minimum number of hours necessary to qualify.

Last year, there were a few senior workers who were able to collect EI, but it looks doubtful for even them this year with the pitiful amount of work currently available, said Thorkelson. The reason it is difficult for shoreworkers is that their EI area span from the Queen Charlotte Islands to the Alberta border, and from Cache Creek up to the Yukon border.

The unemployment rate for this large reason is applied to calculate the number of hours workers in Prince Rupert need to qualify, a formula that doesn’t benefit many workers in the Northwest.

“Included in that are the oil fields, which have zero per cent unemployment and a much bigger population than our corner of the province,” said Thorkelson.

“So, their zero unemployment outweighs what will probably be our 20 per cent unemployment rate in the fall, meaning the minimum number of hours is 420, which our workers will struggle to even get. But for the last five years we’ve needed more and more hours to qualify, and so 590 or 630 has been the standard number of hours. So, at a time when our industry is getting less work, the number of hours you need for EI is increasing.”
Conrad Lewis is a local shoreworker and on the general executive UFAWU board, with 28 years seniority working in Prince Rupert. As of Friday, Lewis had only worked nine days, which he says is far from normal considering July is nearly over.
“I’m usually working by mid-June, but I only got my first call last week,” said Lewis. “There’s lots of people who haven’t even worked yet. And it’s funny because there’s a surplus of funds paid into by nobody other than workers and employers, and not very many people can access it. And you have the same government standing up and saying our economy is in the upswing, but we have a lot of people who have no income at all now, not even on welfare. In Prince Rupert, and all over British Columbia, you have whole pile of people who aren’t even in the equation right now.”
Photos above from Canadian Fish Company website.

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