- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
In his Dec. 19 letter, the director of public affairs for the Omega Protein Company, Ben Reed, gave a slanted view of the menhaden fish issue [“Menhaden contribute little to improving water quality”]. I could refute many of his statements, however, I will focus here on his argument that the recent vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to put a reduced cap on the catch limits of menhaden was opposed by the local UFCW union and the NAACP because they fear job losses. While it is true that these two organizations do support Omega Protein’s position for this reason, jobs for U.S. workers in the menhaden fisheries have been reduced and insecure for many years now. In part it is due to the mechanization of the process, but also the diminished numbers of menhaden fish available, and Omega Protein’s hiring of foreign labor to do the work.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Omega Protein’s records on foreign hiring have come to light. The Public Trust Project recently published an article including the new information, which shows that H2B visas were obtained in order for the company to hire a total of 695 foreign workers between 2006 and 2007 for their Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia operations. Although only 46 of them went to the Reedville, Va., location, this occurred during a time when Reedville and surrounding counties had an unemployment rate that was 1.2 percent higher than Virginia’s average rate. Omega Protein’s own employees have stated in articles that there are always more local fishermen wanting work than are hired by the company for these jobs. On this basis, surely Reedville’s unemployed fishermen should get first dibs on the company’s available jobs before going outside the country for workers? Omega Protein in fact spent $770,000 in 2008 in order to lobby the Congress to expand the H2B visa program so that more foreign workers could be hired.
Omega Protein hires workers mostly as seasonal and temporary, with workers being fired at the end of each menhaden fishing season so that they can collect unemployment pay during the offseason. They reapply at the start of the next fishing season to work again with the company. This work is neither guaranteed nor safe, as exemplified by the 63 OSHA violations that Omega Protein has been cited for since 2002, including three deaths in 2011.
If Omega Protein, the UFCW, and the NAACP truly care about viable future jobs in the menhaden fishery, they should support the ASMFC’s vote on the catch limit as a means of maintaining a healthy stock of these fish to be caught going on into the future. In the end, once the menhaden fish are gone, so are these seasonal, temporary jobs at Omega Protein.
Del. Peter F. Murphy, Bryans Road
The writer is a state delegate representing Charles County’s District 28.