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Bay de Verde workers 'overjoyed' to be back on the job as crab plant roars back to life

There's a feeling of relief and joy at the seafood processing plant in Bay de Verde this week, where workers are back on the processing line following a crab dispute that delayed the opening of the plant by six weeks. Pictured here are, from left, plant workers Maxine Hatch, Cathy Knapman, Eileen Blundon and Debbie Blundon. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)

It's not often that you see a broad smile on a person's face when they're dealing with a mountain of laundry, but Maxine Hatch just might be the exception.

It's been a turbulent spring for Hatch and hundreds of other seasonal employees at the Quinlan Brothers Limited processing plant in Bay de Verde.

A bitter feud that saw snow crab harvesters refusing to untie their boats for six weeks sent reverberations throughout the province, with thousands of plant workers caught in the crossfire of a price dispute between the fisheries union and the Association of Seafood Producers.

Without any crab coming ashore, there was no work for the many fork lift operators, truck drivers and production line employees at the 22 crab processing plants in the province, and many were facing a bleak financial situation. Some estimates put the number of shore-based jobs affected by the dispute at 5,000.

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

The impasse was finally resolved on Friday, however, and as expected, the massive Bay de Verde plant in Conception Bay, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, was among the first to activate its processing line and start accepting freshly landed crab.

Hatch, who has worked for the Quinlans for three decades, practically ran back to her job from her home in nearby Red Head Cove.

"Overjoyed. I am very happy to be to work," Hatch exclaimed on Wednesday as she fed armloads of the familiar blue Quinlan's uniform into a row of washers and driers.

"I actually love coming to work," she said.

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

The people of Bay de Verde proudly boast that they operate the largest snow crab processing plant in the world. The plant was constructed in just seven months after a devastating fire destroyed the old plant in April 2016.

Production for this season resumed on Monday, much later than planned, but it was hard not to notice the upbeat mood on Wednesday as CBC was granted a rare look inside this modern facility.

"Everybody's making money. Everybody's paying their bills. Everybody's happier," said Debbie Blundon.

The secret to the operation's success?

"Us," Blundon added.

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

The plant is now operating around the clock, with more than 140 workers on each of the two shifts. Total number of jobs linked to the plant? Nearly 400. The number of harvesters who receive paycheques from the Quinlan Brothers? As many as 800, said plant manager Kristinn Skulason.

Bay de Verde has a permanent population of less than 350; not nearly enough to fill the many seasonal jobs in the community. So like many seafood processing lines in the province, there's an international look to the workforce in Bay de Verde.

Despite aggressive recruiting campaigns, plants are unable to fills their ranks with local workers. So they come from all over Newfoundland and Labrador. The Quinlans were also among the first seafood producers in the province to use Canada's temporary foreign worker program.

So with expectations of another busy season, the company hired 125 people from Thailand, a distance of 12,000 kilometres away.

The Thai workers arrived earlier this spring, but instead of reporting for duty, they also found themselves caught up in a dispute that was beyond their control.

WATCH | Workers at the Quinlan Brothers Limited processing plant speak with the CBC's Terry Roberts:

For weeks, they waited for a breakthrough in the standoff, receiving minimum pay and trying to fill their days in a foreign country. Eleven of them lost patience and went elsewhere in Canada for work. But Thai people are loyal and appreciative of the opportunity afforded by the Quinlans, said Supakrit Sapdejdecha, who returned for his second season of work in Bay de Verde, and is known as "Krit" to his co-workers.

"We should stay with the company," said Krit, who is one of the few Thai workers who can speak English.

During the shutdown, Krit counselled his fellow Thai workers, cautioning them to only spend their limited money on the essentials, such as food.

"We made sure that everybody had an income to survive," said Skulason.

As for his decision to work in Bay de Verde, Krit said Canada is "famous" in Thailand. While he appreciates the paycheque, he said his real incentive for working in Canada is "I want the colour in my life."

He said the fresh air and clean environment is uplifting and healthy, and if possible, "I would like to stay here for all my life."

Meanwhile, there could be consequences to the late start to this year's crab harvest.

The company hopes to process 10,000 metric tonnes of crab this season, but that's now a longshot, said Skulason.

"I can't tell you how it's going to go, but it's going to be hard to to reach that mark," he said.

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