Thank you and good afternoon, Mr. Chair, and members of the committee.
My name is Keith Sullivan. I'm here on behalf of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers-Unifor. FFAW represents nearly 15,000 working women and men throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. Most of our members are employed in the fishing industry and are spread out in more than 500 communities all around the province. About 10,000 are fish harvesters and some 3,000 are employed in fish-processing plants.
COVID-19 has had a serious impact on our province's fishing industry. Some fisheries were delayed by more than a month, at what would have been the beginning of valuable snow crab and lobster seasons, due to safety concerns related to the pandemic.
Now that fisheries are up and running in Newfoundland and Labrador, market challenges are severely impacting incomes. To put it in context, last year the fishery was worth $1.5 billion to the provincial economy. The snow crab fishery was worth $350 million in 2019. Entire fisheries, such as northern shrimp, are in jeopardy due to impacts from COVID-19. Losses related to the pandemic could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. For small coastal communities, this is devastating.
Fisheries workers continue to be concerned about safety on the job, and how a shortened season will impact their income. Both harvesters and plant workers rely on employment insurance to supplement their incomes during the off-season.
With most harvesters expecting a significant decline in earnings this year, many were rightfully worried about qualifying for benefits once the season ended, and were relieved to hear the federal government's announcement on changes to fishing EI, so that harvesters can use the previous year's earnings to qualify in 2020, in addition to the new wage subsidy and grant for fishing enterprise owners.
Unfortunately, since the federal government's announcement last month, no further details on changes to fishing EI or details on the other harvester benefit programs have been released. This has created massive frustration and anxiety for harvesters. Each day our union receives dozens and dozens of calls from our members looking for information or clarification on these programs. While we understand that changes to EI and the rollout of these programs won't happen overnight, the challenges facing our industry are impacting harvesters today. They can't wait any longer to know how these programs will help them and their families.
Right now, most independent owner-operator harvesters in our province can't avail themselves of the CEBA. This must be fixed. We have young harvesters who have just invested huge amounts of money, sometimes millions of dollars, in gear and boats, for example, and now they can't access a program that will help them get through 2020 in order to participate in the financial recovery.
Fish-processing workers will face similar struggles. These workers rely on seasonal EI benefits and were left out of the federal announcement to support fish harvesters. Like harvesters, processing and other fisheries workers are on the front lines, providing fresh, high-quality seafood to domestic and international markets, feeding coastal communities and supporting fishing families.
Given the delays in the fishing season and market challenges that have limited the amount of seafood we will process and export this year, many processing workers will not have enough hours to qualify for adequate EI, or will have extremely low benefits to carry them through until next year.
These workers will need support from the federal government, either through changes to seasonal EI, similar to the recent changes to fishing EI that will ensure they will qualify based on last year's insurable hours, or by adjusting the program in consideration of the pandemic. An example would be to decrease the number of the best weeks in the calculation of benefits.
In terms of other federal policy that I believe will safeguard the inshore fishery, the new Fisheries Act offers some opportunity.
For Newfoundland and Labrador, it's not hyperbole to say that the fleet separation and owner-operator are two of the most important economic development policies for our coastal communities. These policies have kept the viable inshore fleet in place and have provided significant wealth to every corner of our province.
Many billions of dollars have originated and remained within coastal communities because of owner-operator and fleet separation policies. They have succeeded in widely distributing fishing incomes, and play an integral role in our tourism industry, sustaining a vibrant cultural and social fabric in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
However, corporate interests, both domestic and foreign, have influenced and interfered with the application and enforcement of fleet separation and owner-operator policies. As a result, corporations have gained control of fishing licences and are siphoning the wealth and benefits of inshore fisheries from our coastal communities.
In light of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to enforce these policies, particularly given the economic uncertainty facing fish harvesters.
Amendments to the Fisheries Act adopted by Parliament last year give these owner-operator policies the force of law. Enforcement will be more robust, with legal consequences. By changing this policy into law, the federal government acknowledged the principle that the inshore fishery should be guided by what is best for independent owner-operators and coastal communities, not corporate interests. This is a principle that we must protect now more than ever. Action to eradicate these under-the-table controlling agreements that undermine our coastal communities and economy must be taken now.
The inshore fishery is the primary economic driver in the majority of the coastal communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Jobs in the fishery provide good middle-class incomes in rural communities, which is why support for the industry in the short term is so critical.
Protecting and promoting a fishery that serves communities, addresses challenges in food security and provides good wages and safe workplaces—these must be the priorities for all levels of government and all stakeholders in our industry if you want to come out of this pandemic with vibrant, sustainable coastal communities and an economy where nobody gets left behind.