Twenty-four hours of madness

Brodie Thomas
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You have the right to refuse unsafe work. It’s a saying just about everyone in the working world has heard at one time or another. Last week we discovered fishers don’t share that right with the rest of Canada’s workers.


Fishers wanting to take part in the 24-hour halibut fishery faced a more nuanced choice on Tuesday: refuse unsafe work and take a financial hit, or take your chances on the water.

Not surprisingly, the fishers we spoke with took their chances on the water and ended up facing gale force winds in the dead of night.

The day before the opening, a number of fishers called both the Fish Food and Allied workers union office and DFO offices asking if the fishery would be postponed due to the forecasted high winds. Both organizations have a hand in making the decision to delay the opening, and neither made the call.

DFO did, however, grant a five-hour extension because of “poor weather conditions.”

Because we all know rough seas become placid just moments after winds drop off.

This extension was announced seven hours and twenty minutes into the fishery. If DFO has the power to grant such an extension, why not call the whole fishery off? Why not grant waivers for those who wanted to back out? Why not grant five hours another day? This is the logic of bureaucracy.

There is something inherently dangerous in providing a 24-hour window in which workers must complete a task. In just about any other industry, steps are taken to prevent such madness. Truck drivers must keep logs to prove they weren’t driving for hours on end. There are legal limits on overtime for most industrial workers.

But for fishermen in the gulf, the 24-hour fishery has become the norm. Several times each year, fishers have their bait ready and they hit the water running, pulling an all-nighter in what is recognized statistically as one of the most dangerous work environments in Canada.

One wonders how much of that danger is due to the work environment, and how much is due to illogical regulations and practices such as the 24-hour fishery.

Fishers we spoke with directed much of their anger not at DFO, but at the FFAW for first refusing to fight for a delay, and then remaining quiet after the fact.

Their anger is justified. Most unions go looking for fights to pick with the government and jump at any opportunity to take a contrarian’s stance. Why not use this as a teachable moment?

Weather and risk may be two unchangeable realities of the fishing industry, but absurd regulations and unsafe working conditions are man-made and can be rectified. Nobody really expects DFO to make these changes on its own accord. But if the FFAW won’t fight to create safer working environments for its members, who will?

Geographic location: Canada

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