NDP: Budget cuts putting fishermen’s lives in danger

The Chronicle Herald, 9 February 2012 By Paul McLeod

The NDP accused the federal government Wednesday of putting fishermen’s lives at risk, foreshadowing what will likely be months of heated debate over upcoming budget cuts.

The Harper Conservatives have signalled they will cut spending across the board in this year’s budget, and many believe the cuts will be deep. As the government finalizes its austerity plans, the opposition is already picking the Conservatives apart.

On Wednesday, the NDP and Canadian Auto Workers accused the government of endangering the lives of fishermen as it scales back overtime at Canadian Coast Guard communications centres.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada says it is cutting down on overtime in a way that is specifically designed not to endanger lives.

"For the NDP and CAW to equate the coast guard’s best-business practice with a threat to maritime safety or suggest that it will risk Canadians’ lives is nothing but a transparent attempt to mislead the public and cause panic in order to play politics," said an employee from Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield’s office.

Three to five people typically staff coast guard stations and are in charge of monitoring vessel distress calls and other duties such as directing marine traffic.

Fisheries and Oceans is cutting down staffing levels during so-called quiet shifts, which are usually overnight at times of year when fishing is not in season. In the Halifax office’s case, staffing levels will go from five employees round-the-clock down to three at certain times.

At a news conference Wednesday in Ottawa, the NDP and CAW said the changes will increase the chance an SOS call will go unheard.

British Columbia MP Fin Donnelly said with only two people working in a centre, it is possible that one person could be busy and one could be distracted when a call for help comes in.

"I think these cuts are going to put lives at risk, and that this is unacceptable," said Donnelly, a New Democrat.

Martin Gregoire, president of Local 2182 of the CAW, which represents the workers, said two coast guard centres that were understaffed missed a distress call in January, but a third centre picked up the call.

"We’re like firefighters," Gregoire said. "We are front-line officers listening to distress frequencies and regulating marine traffic. We need enough officers on watch at all times to maintain an adequate level of service."

The 350 employees who work at the 22 centres across Canada are used to working large amounts of overtime. In recent years, they averaged about 350 hours of overtime per person, more than any other group of employees in the federal civil service.

Fisheries and Oceans officials say the staffing reductions have been in place in Quebec for 10 years and in Victoria for five with no ill effects.

Alex Li, director of safety and environmental response systems with Fisheries and Oceans, said he didn’t know the details of the January incident, but he indicated that his department undertook two studies to ensure staffing levels will not affect marine safety.

Li said the workload at the centres during slow shifts can fall to 20 per cent of the activity during peak hours.

"This is about matching the personnel on shift to the volume of the workload that they have to face," said Li.

Gregoire agreed that staff have been working unusually high amounts of overtime, but he said his union has been pushing the government to hire more people.

Staff reductions are being rolled out at 11 of the communications centres. No employees are being laid off, with the exception of four positions that will be cut when the coast guard shuts down its Inuvik centre later this year.

(c) The Chronicle Herald