Newfoundland’s largest seafood processor, Fishery Products International, Inc. planned to resume union talks following an impasse during which the company tried to sell one of its contentious plants but was thwarted by the province.
FPI was deadlocked for months over wages in talks with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union that represents the workers. In three plants on the Burin Peninsula, the company wants to modernize or sell out, as well as lay off hundreds of workers.
The company concluded a deal several weeks ago with Bill Barry of Corner Brook, NL, in which his Barry Group would take over FPI’s Harbour Breton fish plant for $1.00, and assume the potentially substantial environmental liabilities for the site. Barry planned to process pelagics there. But when the deal was announced, the Newfoundland Fisheries Minister Tom Rideout said it could not take effect.
“FPI has no right to dispose of any asset, including Harbour Breton, without the approval of the [the Newfoundland and Labrador] cabinet,” under the act that governs the company originally set up by the province, said Rideout. Under the revised FPI ACT, FPI needs government approval before it can dispose of any assets.
However, a spokesperson for Cooke Aquaculture, Nell Halse, said that company is interested in the Harbor Breton plant if the Barry deal falls through.
Cooke reportedly promised 120 full time year round jobs processing salmon from its farm in Belleoram. Cooke might consider using another FPI Burin Peninsula plant in Fortune, if Harbor Breton falls through.
One Harbour Breton issue is how much control, if any, the town government may have over the operation by either company.
Two years ago, FPI offered to sell the closed plant to the town for $1.00, but Harbour Breton could not accept the plant because of the environmental liabilities.
The Barry deal appeared to be a way around the liability, but since it was not negotiated in public, it raised hackles in the province.
Harbour Breton wants the 350 jobs the plant used to provide before it was closed more than a year ago, and FPI wants to get the plant off its books.
John Risley, a major shareholder in FPI, said in late September he doesn’t dispute the province’s right to kill the Barry deal without cabinet approval, but added a sale to Cooke might take as long as a year, and the town would face another year of unemployment.
“At this point in time Mr. Barry owns the plant,” said Risley. “My understanding is he’s meeting with officials in the town to go over plans for the plant, and indeed proposing to begin work on the plant next week.”
A Cooke spokesman said the company doesn’t want to get between the town, the province and FPI, but agreed it would be a year before farmed salmon would be available to the factory, where Cooke plans to employ at least 120 people year-round. The mayor of Harbour Breton said a solution might be if both companies used different parts of the factory.
— Nancy Griffin