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With completed projects to supplement income, plant workers remain worried for their future

‘It’s not promising even if I can go back there’

TWILLINGATE AND NEW WORLD ISLAND, NL – While projects were offered to supply an income for its laid-off workers, the closure of the Notre Dame Seafoods plant in Twillingate is having a lasting economic impact on many community members. 

Twillingate’s Max Conway understands the impact of the plant firsthand. Conway’s late father spent most of his life working there, and Conway himself has put in nearly 30 years at the plant – 17 years when it was a groundfish plant and 10 years as a shrimp plant. 

“You’re talking about generation after generation that depended on that plant,” said Conway. “It was good money and employment for the area – you take that out of Twillingate what have we got left?” 

John Hynes, vice-president of the Notre Dame Seafoods workers’ union, worked with the provincial government to garner income for the workers when the shutdown came last summer. The outcome was two minimum-wage projects at just the 420-hour minimum needed to apply for employment insurance (EI).  

With the considerable decrease in income this brought for the workers, Hynes had hoped for a much better deal. 

“We were after much more, but we didn’t even get the 14 weeks we wanted,” Hynes said. 

Renovation projects 

Two renovation projects were created for the laid-off employees. Most went to work on the Twillingate swimming pool, while several New World Island-based employees did renovations on the community centre in Carter’s Cove. 

Conway worked on Twillingate’s swimming pool, and he says the facility underwent quite a refurbishment. 

“We tore down pretty much the whole facility inside, the bathrooms and dressing rooms were replaced with new walls, benches, new sinks and toilets and plumbing put through,” Conway recalled.  

“From the time we went there everything was pretty much gutted out, from old to brand new. A complete overhaul from what it was.” 

As well, railings around the pool and the new doors were painted. With the pool closing for winter and the heating soon to be cut off, Conway says some work like tiling was left for other workers to complete.  

In total, the 23 plant workers made their 420 hours in just over 10 weeks. 

Conway had hoped the project would yield at least 14 weeks of work to match the average hours they had been making in recent summers at the plant. But the union’s efforts were to no avail.   

“Minimum wage with the way cost of living is now – it don’t meet your ends,” said Conway. “But what choice did you have, you either worked for minimum wage or have no EI for the winter.” 

Virgin Arm resident Vaden Curtis helped put in new doors, windows and a new bridge on the New World Island project. He says while it would’ve been nice to get more hours or higher wages, he is still grateful for the work he was offered.  

“I didn’t really expect them to put up anything more or change the rules because we were plant workers,” said Curtis. “Many people were hoping for $15, but it’s good enough to give us a project. 

“If they hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have anything.” 

‘I really love it here’ 

Plant worker Ruby Clarke had been working on the Twillingate pool renovations along with her husband and fellow plant worker Clarence Clarke. But Ruby Clarke suffered a dangerous fall within the early days of the project, which kept her out of work for seven weeks. 

“I fell down 15 steps; I was bruised black and blue right on down,” Clarke said. “When I got clearance from the doctor that I could go back to work, the pool job was done.” 

If it had not been for being dressed for the winter weather, Clarke says her doctor told her she would have broken some bones in the fall. 

When she recuperated, Clarke was instead given a job at Twillingate’s town office and fire hall. She cleaned the floors, painted, and kept the town’s fire truck clean and polished.  

On Feb. 23, Clarke finishes her final day to qualify for EI – the last plant worker to be laid off from a project. But if she could, Clarke says she would much prefer to stay on the job. 

“I really love it here, when they put me to painting that’s the best job I love doing,” she said. “I wish I could stay working, but that’s it – you only get 10 weeks. That’s all they’ll give you.” 

Clarke worked at the Notre Dame Seafoods plant for 33 years. With a projected less than $200 per week coming from her EI, she says this year will be a major drop in income for her and her husband. 

“You can’t live on this kind of money, it’s a big difference,” Clarke said.  

Clarke now puts her hope on a potential job at the Comfort Cove plant this summer, where she had worked years before. 

An alternative in home care 

When long-time plant worker Milton Hynes got word of the closure, he sent out resumes across Notre Dame Bay in search of an income.  

“I went out from Twillingate to Fogo, Comfort Cove,” Hynes told the Pilot. “Had my name put in for boat tours, the Fogo and Comfort Cove plants, and at the last of it I put my name in for home care and I got a job at that.” 

Hynes turned down the minimum wage projects proposed for other workers and now keeps a steady part-time job doing home care, working a week-on, week-off schedule.  

Hynes says even if the plant reopens this summer, he may just stick with his new job – despite his 45 years of experience at the seafood plant. 

“I’m enjoying the home care so I’m going to keep at that for a while,” he said. “If the plant were to reopen I’d have to think about it. 

“It’s not promising even if I can go back there.” 

The continual decline in shrimp stocks with rumoured quota cuts on the way is giving Hynes second thoughts on returning to work at the plant. 

On the horizon 

A second project is expected if the plant does not open again this summer. A meeting scheduled for this Thursday will go ahead among the plant’s union, management and the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union to determine how the plant will react to the recent announcements on shrimp stocks. 

While some workers would like to see the plant be re-opened, the potential is bleak. Conway says if the opportunity is given for some workers to go back to the Notre Dame Seafoods plant this summer only for a few weeks, then it may as well stay closed. 

“We lost 60 per cent quota last year, could be another 10 per cent this year. So even if she does open it could be for no more than four to five weeks,” said Conway.  
“If that’s the case may as well leave it shut down. That’d be no good for nobody – you can’t qualify for EI, and you’re still going to be dependent on a hand-out from the government to make up your hours.” 

Depending on the outcome of Thursday’s meetings, the plant worker will be kept on edge about the future of their employment and financial well-being. 

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