By Tina Comeau
Bound together and nearly two inches thick, hundreds of pages peppered with yellow tabs – marked by East Pubnico lobster fisherman Sandy Forbes and Cape Breton resident Ivan MacDonald, who is involved with the aquaculture industry – the binder gives the appearance of the complicated fight they’ve waged for years regarding the formation of a safety association encompassing the fishing, processing and aquaculture industries in Nova Scotia.
Except, say the men, it’s really not that complicated. They believe the formation of the association was flawed from the get-go.
The Nova Scotia Fisheries Safety Association was formed to decrease injuries and to bring down Workers Compensation Board (WCB) premiums that employers in these industries, including fishing captains, must pay. The safety association covers saltwater fisheries, inland fisheries, the processing sector and the aquaculture industry.
When the association was formed employers, including fishermen who pay WCB premiums, were told they had to pay a mandatory membership fee. Depending on what they pay in annual WCB rates, they either had to pay $50, $100 or $200 annually to fund the association.
Not everyone liked being told they had to do this, including Forbes and MacDonald. And for years they’ve been speaking out against the process. They also wanted out of the safety association and submitted written resignations, which the bylaws allow.
This shouldn’t be misinterpreted to mean they are against safety. They’re not.
This past March, in a letter from Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, the men were told what they already believed to be true, that the Registry of Joint Stock Companies would not permit the bylaws of any society to require mandatory membership. Therefore a bylaw of the safety association that stated people can resign in writing had to be upheld and could not be changed by the association.
The men continue to complain that they don’t feel that they, and others who have resigned in writing, have received what they feel to be a proper letter of acknowledgement of their resignation. There’s been around 135 who have submitted resignation letters.
But now Forbes’ and MacDonald’s main fight takes another form. They are questioning whether the safety association was properly formed in the first place. It goes back to that two-inch binder and what’s in it.
Or from their perspective, what’s not in it.
“There was a contract, 8C in Schedule A, that said the fisheries safety association had to provide the Workers Compensation Board, in writing, with the information to validate that they had 50 per cent of all of the employers on side,” says MacDonald, who says he and Forbes have never seen such validation, despite repeated requests to have it produced.
“We’ve asked for it. They don’t have it. If it doesn’t exist the safety association shouldn’t have been funded. It’s public money,” MacDonald says. “The bottom line is if they were supposed to provide this before they got funded, how they get funded?”
Asked about such documentation – If it can be produced? If it exists? If it was supplied as required? – Steve MacDonald, a director of communications with the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia, said that unfortunately the WCB cannot answer these specific questions because it relates directly to an ongoing appeal case currently before the WCB’s appeal tribunal.
What he can say is, “In the months leading up to the establishment of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Fisheries Sector Council and representatives from the industry worked to communicate and establish support for the safety association. The WCB was supportive of this work. The association was established to perform much-needed safety-related work in this industry.”
Public meetings were part of the lead up to the formation of the safety association. These meetings were advertised, although one held in Yarmouth in October 2008, as one example, drew less than a dozen people. Aside from meetings, there was a mail-out and other endeavours used to gauge support for an association. Eventually the decision was made to proceed with the formation of the association and that support existed to back it up.
Meanwhile, it turns out that resigning from the safety association doesn’t mean that you won’t still have to pay that annual $50, $100 or $200 membership fee. Actually membership fee isn’t the correct term, says the WCB and the safety association. It’s really a levy. If you resign from the safety association you still have to pay the levy to fund the association. The WCB says in 2011 it collected about $225,000 in such fees for the annual operation of the safety association.
The safety association says the continued collection of the levy after resignation is beyond its control, as it is due to an agreement that was struck with the WCB. And Stewart Franck, executive director of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia, says while people are within their right to resign from the association, he hopes they won’t.
“If people choose to resign, that does not affect the Workers Compensation Board continuing to invoice them that levy for the Fisheries Safety Association. So if they resign, they just opt out of taking advantage of services from the fisheries safety association,” he says, describing some of these services as safety initiatives and discounts on safety training and equipment.
He feels it should be important to everyone to see WCB rates come down, or, at the very least, not to see them increase. Still, he admits this will take time. Years even. And in the end, there are no guarantees.
But Franck says the number of injuries and fatalities support the reasons why improving safety within the industry is important.
“I’ve been told that five or six people being killed in the fishing industry every year in Nova Scotia is not that bad, considering the number of people that are in the industry. But it’s totally unacceptable,” says Franck, who still believes all injuries are preventable. “But does that ever mean we’ll ever get to zero per cent? Probably not.”
And, he notes, those within the industry who may be doing everything right, or who think they’re doing everything right, still have to pay for the mistakes and injuries of others. That’s just the way it is.
“If you were the best driver in your neighbourhood and never had an accident, but everyone else in your neighbourhood is running into each other, your car insurance rates will go up, even though you’ve never had a claim.” Which is why a collective approach to safety is needed, he says.
In the fishing industry, the WCB says at a rate of $7.85 per $100, a fishing employer with a $40,000 payroll is paying over $3,000 in premiums each year.
But for some, even if the goal of seeing the rates come down is achieved, depending on that reduction, with the annual levy they’re still having to pay to fund the association, they might only break even.
Although on the plus side, lower WCB rates would mean that fewer injuries and deaths are occurring.
Says Franck, “If everything were running perfectly, we wouldn’t have been created.”
But as far as Forbes and MacDonald are concerned, if the required support didn’t exist or couldn’t be demonstrated from the start, then the association shouldn’t have been formed in the first place with their money and other people’s money. If that validation does exist, they’d like to see it.