By Jaymie White
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
PORT AUX BASQUES – On Tuesday, June 21, a news release by The Canadian Merchant Service Guild, a national association of masters, mates, pilots, engineers, and other marine officers and the union representing licensed officers of Marine Atlantic, outlined concerns over Marine Atlantic’s recent use of outside contractors for positions on their ferries, asking them to stop.
The statement read:
“Since May, Marine Atlantic has been staffing some vacant positions, and even overstaffing, on its ferries with officers from a contracting agency, instead of filling them with its own employees who are Guild members. While the collective agreement has contracting out language, it was not followed.
“While Marine Atlantic has said it is doing this because of a staffing shortage, the Guild points out that it has been warning Marine Atlantic for months that its wages and working conditions were not competitive and that it would have trouble attracting and retaining workers. In April, prior to Marine Atlantic deciding to employ outside contractors, the Guild suggested solutions to address the staffing shortages. These suggestions were rejected or ignored.
“The Guild has learned that the outside contract employees are being paid hourly rates that are significantly higher than those paid to regular Marine Atlantic employees, to do the same work. The outside contractors are also receiving paid benefits that Marine Atlantic employees do not receive. Recently the Guild provided Marine Atlantic with several proposals to cover any staffing shortages with their own employees to ensure sailing schedules are maintained during this busy summer sailing schedule. Despite the fact that these proposals were more cost effective than using outside contractors Marine Atlantic rejected them.”
The Guild stated that it has filed a grievance, and a complaint with the Canadian Industrial Relations Board and called upon the Crown corporation to immediately cease from using outside contractors.
MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile) admitted this is a concern he has been contacted about by his constituents, and confirmed he has reached out to Marine Atlantic.
“Marine Atlantic, basically, is saying there’s a process here to be followed, and I have heard something about shortages. The reality on my end is I still don’t know enough to make any determination, and it is federal in nature, so I have less applicability, but that doesn’t mean I don’t share constituents concerns when it comes to not getting hired. If we have people who have qualifications, they should be getting first opportunity if they fit the bill, and so I’m going to continue to follow up.”
MP Gudie Hutchings (Long Range Mountains), Minister of Rural and Economic Development, said she hears the issues of staffing shortages everywhere she goes.
“From the north of the riding to the south there’s staffing shortages and Marine Atlantic is no different. They’re trying to do what they can to keep the ferries moving. The Guild has filed a grievance and a complaint, and I’m sure Marine Atlantic will do their due diligence and work with both parties involved to come to a resolution and keep the ferries going.”
Hutchings said Newfoundland and Labrador are seeing record numbers of people coming, a lot for Come Home Year, so it’s vital to keep the ferries running.
“We’ve got to do something, but keep going. We can’t have the ferries stop. That’s how we get our goods here. That’s how people travel back and forth and that’s how the tourism sector travels. So we’ve got to do what we can to keep the ferry moving and I’m sure Marine Atlantic will deal with the Guild and the Canadian Industrial Board to get this resolved.”
MHA Tony Wakeham (Stephenville – Port au Port) was recently in Port Aux Basques with David Brazil, Leader of the Official Opposition, along with Carol Anstey, a west coast business leader who ran in the most recent federal election as the Conservative candidate for the riding of Long Range Mountains, to discuss Marine Atlantic and other important concerns that significantly impact residents on the Southwest coast and across the province. Wakeham said this particular issue was something that was brought to their attention by workers at Marine Atlantic.
“It’s a large company, and the fact that they say they’re not able to find workers, to get workers, I don’t think that’s good enough. I think that they should’ve been more pro-active. If there’s a staffing shortage, they need to get out there and get these positions filled. I think the union themselves are on top of this. The workers have offered solutions to the company, and so the company needs to sit down with their workers and come up with a solution. It can’t simply be about hiring contract workers, and in some cases paying them more than their own unionized workers, to get the job done,” said Wakeham. “When you wind up hiring outside contractors and paying them hourly rates that are higher than the current workers are being paid, that’s a problem. They’ve gotten to a situation where they have this staffing shortage, a staffing shortage doesn’t just happen. I think what the workers are telling Marine Atlantic, are telling us, is that this has been going on for a while and they haven’t bothered to fill these staffing shortages and now find themselves in a situation where they’re turning around and having to contract outside workers.”
Anstey said when she was campaigning in the federal election, one of the main concerns she heard voiced from residents in Port Aux Basques was that they were losing jobs in the community.
“I think it’s because there’s a lot of reliance on these high-paying jobs to distribute dollars throughout the economy and the community, and you can’t much blame them in the sense that these rural communities don’t want anything else taken from them, and they get very upset because they feel that there are local people who can fill the jobs, and therefore the money stays in the community and supports their local small businesses, and I 100 per cent agree with that. I don’t believe for a minute that there’s not qualified people within the community that can do some of these jobs.”
Anstey said there is a statement a resident once said to her that was a lightbulb moment.
“If it wasn’t for Port Aux Basques, there would be no Marine Atlantic. Port Aux Basques is the gateway to the rest of the province and it’s where the ferry is located. They feel that Marine Atlantic is not recognizing that. They feel like Port Aux Basques doesn’t matter to them. I think that’s the message they’re sending,” said Anstey. “I think they feel disenfranchised and forgotten about.”
Marine Atlantic responded to e-mail inquiries with the following:
“The workforce issues referenced in your message are sensitive in nature and we follow a formal process regarding these types of concerns. We are currently progressing through this process and therefore will refrain from making public statements at this time.”