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Aquaculture has a long way to go

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By Milthon Lujan

Canada.- Tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure has been invested into the aquaculture sector in our province over the last 25 years, yet the industry provides only precarious employment to workers. For these workers, it is an industry plagued by uncertainty and empty promises – not knowing if they will get enough hours week to week in order to make ends meet.

Despite the financial investment, the aquaculture industry on the Connaigre Peninsula struggles to provide meaningful work for its 150 processing workers. If the industry cannot provide a minimum of 40 hours of work to its employees each week, then the business model is seriously flawed.

Aquaculture workers deserve meaningful employment with respectable wages and benefits. Having production workers as poor third cousins to giant multi-national companies has to stop. That antiquated model must change for both proposed and established operations.

With the blessing of Canada’s Competition Bureau, Marine Harvest announced that it has recently acquired Northern Harvest in July. The arrival of Marine Harvest in NL presents an opportunity to do things differently. Not just economic viability, but an opportunity for responsible farming, meaningful jobs and respectful collective bargaining and labour relations.

Meaningful change requires strong policy. If politicians truly want to strengthen the science, marketing and the environmental and social viability of aquaculture, then they need to listen to all stakeholders. FFAW-Unifor members employed at Northern Harvest and at the Harbour Breton and St. Alban’s plants are experienced aquaculture workers and they have a lot to say.

So, let’s try and get it right for once.

Aquaculture companies planning to use their own money or relying on government funding should be required, by law, to establish a production plan, outlining minimum job numbers and weeks of employment. A security bond, required as a Condition of License should be established for each aquaculture enterprise. Based on the number of employees, the bond will be utilized by the Province and provided to workers adversely affected by the failure of the business, the closure of a plant or grow out or breach of contract between the companies and the Province or companies and workers. So far, the history of the industry has been that when companies leave, workers are left with nothing.

Workers, their families and communities deserve a better model.

A new model needs to include an Industry Environmental Protection/Monitoring Agency. This Agency would be funded by Industry and both levels of Government and could be a significant employer in the areas of aquaculture grow-out and production. Given that the aquaculture industry and the environment are entirely interwoven – monitoring, surveillance and facilitating liaisons between aquaculture and wild fisheries would go along way to mitigate adjacency and many other hazards from farming to wild fisheries, thus ensuring industry best practices, better regulations and transparency.

Workers would also insist on a world class Occupational Health and Safety Research and Development Facility, funded by aquaculture companies and administered by workers and company representatives. Protecting the health of aquaculture workers has to be a focus. Such a facility would prioritize aquaculture occupational health and safety issues in farming, harvesting, processing, and transport of product.

Make no mistake, our members want and deserve fulltime, meaningful, safe employment. And, we are hopeful that the arrival of Marine Harvest is the opportunity to deliver. However, getting there will take some time. It will require more product, enhanced facilities and infrastructure, stronger regulations and industry best practices.

In the meantime – making the employment insurance program meaningful and responsive to seasonal issues should be a mandate of our elected politicians. Particularly in industries such as aquaculture, where temperature/growth/harvesting delays cause huge disruptions in workers’ annual income. The program should meet the needs of workers as opposed to the current model where workers struggle in a system never intended for aquaculture. Reinstating the five week EI Extension Program and ensuring a provincial employment program that delivers meaningful benefits is the least government can do.

Our members and their families, rural Newfoundland and Labrador deserves nothing less.

Source: FFAW

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