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Vancouver Island industry suffering from port job action

“We need the federal government to get involved in this. It is costing Canada billions of dollars already.”
The container yard at the Port of Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The San Group is “stuck between a rock and a hard place” as the prospect looms of a second port strike, says executive director Kamal Sanghera.

“We have millions and millions of dollars worth of cargo stuck which we can not ship,” he said Wednesday. San Group has mills near Port Alberni and a massive value-added facility there, as well as operations on the Lower Mainland.

“We need the federal government to get involved in this. It is costing Canada billions of dollars already.” The port workers’ union went on strike from July 1 to 13; the strike was then halted while employers and the union considered a mediator’s proposal. The union rejected the proposal this week and said the strike will resume on Saturday and then rescinded that announcement on Wednesday night.

The possibility of the strike resuming comes after access to the west side of Vancouver Island was blocked for much of June due to a wildfire and resulting damage to Highway 4 and adjacent bluffs. San Group trucks are carrying product out in the evenings to accommodate ongoing highway closures.

Job action at ports has had a major impact on the San Group, Sanghera said.

“All our cargo is stuck. We can not ship it out of Port Alberni or even from the Lower Mainland — anywhere.”

The company is paying for containers it brought in to fill with product, which have been prevented from being moved because of the strike.

Typically, once a container is picked up, the company has 24 to 48 hours to deliver it back, he said. But when that doesn’t happen because of job action the company must pay to hold onto them.

“We are just stuck in the middle.”

The port strike has affected cash flow. “We are talking to the banks right now.”

The San Group is holding about 30 containers and has another 60 filled with finished products ready to go. They are waiting in Port Alberni, Langley and Delta.

Every week, the San Group ships out 100 to 250 fully loaded containers, Sanghera said.

“We’ve got three weeks backlog right now.”

The company has shut down its export-oriented Delta mill because its can not ship products, he said.

Value-added products from the Island are shipped to markets that include Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe.

During the port workers strike from July 1 to 13, no job action was taken at cruise ship ports, Stella Garcia, spokesperson for the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, said Wednesday. “As of now, cruise will not be affected by the strike.”

Ian Marr, chief executive of the Nanaimo Port Authority, said new vehicles are scheduled to be delivered to the downtown port later this month. An earlier shipment could not dock because of the strike so the vessel left without unloading. As well, vessels are slated to pick up logs at the port, he said.

Graham Kissack, Paper Excellence vice-president of environment, health and safety and communications, said the company’s Crofton pulp and paper mill remains idled because of poor market and therefore has not been affected by job action.

There are some impacts for the company’s paper mill in Port Alberni even though its products are moved by rail through most of North America. “It is certainly reliant on chemicals and pulp and other goods that come through Nanaimo.” If the strike starts up again there will likely be impacts, Kissack said.

Industries have faced a tough time on the Island this summer. “Given the problem we’ve had with road access into Port Alberni we’ve already had a very very rough couple of weeks here anyway,” he said.

The biggest strike impact is on the company’s mills in the Interior of B.C. and in Saskatchewan.

If there’s another strike, Paper Excellence will have to build pulp inventory in various locations across Western Canada as it waits for the dispute to end, he said. At some point, availability of warehouse space would become an issue.

There’s concern that the company might have to curtail operations if there isn’t enough space to put its material, he said.

Paper Excellence respects the bargaining process and is calling on all parties to come together to resolve this as soon as possible, Kissack said.

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