Friday, November 17, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Supply and Demand

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Supply and Demand” by Amos Lee. The song is about the tendency of people to construct their lives around their occupations and the impact this has on them. For example, a study out of Ohio found women working more than 60 hours per week had triple the risk of life threatening illnesses.

The message of the song is that:
Somethin' gotta give with the way I'm livin'
Seems I'm gettin' down everyday
The more I strive, the less I'm alive
And seems I'm gettin' further away

Yeah baby I need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand
The sentiment here is fine and all, but I wonder if the notion that self-reflection is a cure-all for over work is a bit facile. Certainly becoming aware that we’re working too much and might better spend our time doing other things is nice.

But there are lots of concrete reasons people work more that they’d like, such as declining real-dollar wages, a lack of permanent jobs, and growing economic insecurity. Pop culture—which is embedded in a capitalist economy—rarely problematizes the structural outcomes of capitalism.

Instead, it tends to individualize responsibility. Like this song suggesting workers need to change their behaviour. I’m sure the warehouse guy in this video would like to work less:
Well your wife and your baby you tell them yeah well maybe
I'll meet y'all at a weekend resort
Put your eyes on the prize and you can realize
Your little girl's life's so short
But can he? And what kind of profound political and economic change would be required for a manual labourer to earn a living wage?

There doesn’t appear to be an official video for this song so I found this fan-made video. Note the lip-syncer is not Amos Lee.



Somethin' gotta give with the way I'm livin'
Seems I'm gettin' down everyday
The more I strive, the less I'm alive
And seems i'm gettin' further away

Oh well all my superstitions and my crazy suspicions
Of the people that I care about
I been doin' more screamin' than I been doin' dreamin'
And I think it's time I figured it out

Yeah baby I need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand

I been goin' joggin' in the park after dark
Draggin' 'round with me my ball and chain
Took southern skies to make me realize
That I'm causin' myself this pain

The woman that I'm lovin' yeah I'm pushin' and shovin'
Getting further on by the day
And I can't understand how the heart of this man
Ever let it end up this way

Yeah baby I need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand

When the road gets dark and lonesome dear
You can find me here
But honey you don't know where I am
You need a friieend yeeaahh

Life ain't easy in fact I know it's sleazy
When you're the big man in town
Shakin' religions and makin' decisions
You never get slow on down

Well your wife and your baby you tell them yeah well maybe
I'll meet y'all at a weekend resort
Put your eyes on the prize and you can realize
Your little girl's life's so short

Brother you need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand
Yeah sister you need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand

Hey, you better figure it out now
You know you ain't comin' back down, yeah
You better figure it out now
You know you ain't comin' back down

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

BC report highlights rampant wage theft, broken system

The BC Employment Standards Coalition released a report this summer entitled “Workers stories of exploitation and abuse: Why BC Employment Standards needs to change.” BC’s laws governing the terms and conditions of use had been significantly degraded through legislative and regulatory change by the former Liberal government.

The report tells the stories of 145 BC workers whose employers violated their rights or made their lives difficult because BC workers lack certain rights. The most common issues flagged included wage theft (e.g., improper pay, no OT, improper termination, illegal deductions), abusive and unhealthy workplaces (e.g., discrimination, harassment), and scheduling violations (e.g., no breaks, long hours, reduced hours, compulsory OT, scheduling changes).

The stories of wage theft are the ones that will resonate the most with readers. While some stories are of straight up non-payment, it is subtler forms of time and wage-premium theft that the most common:
Brad is a delivery drive and glass installer for a national auto glass company. He stated that because of a significant workload increase, he and his co-workers must start work 20 to 30 minutes early every day without pay. They also have to forego coffee and lunch breaks in order to complete their daily assignments.

John worked in a professional office and was not being paid for overtime. He was given more work than could be handled during normal hours and was expected to stay late to finish it. He was given a company cell phone and expected to be available 24/7. While on vacation, John completed eight hours of unpaid work using a laptop computer that he was asked by his employer to take with him.

Megan is a software developer for an engineering company. When she works overtime, she only gets paid her regular rate of pay. Alternately, she can choose to bank overtime for days off, hour for hour. Megan’s employer also requires her to be available for work at all times, but she is not paid for being on-call. She has reported for work within four hours of a call but only been paid two hours for the call-in. She does not receive overtime pay while working on-call during a weekend. Megan raised the issue of on-call and overtime pay with her employer, but was told there is no overtime pay for extra hours or for on-call extra hours.

Mel is a delivery driver for a retail and wholesale meat company. He reported that all of the employees at his company are “treated like shit” and expected to work for free after the 4 p.m. quitting time. Mel refuses to work overtime for free, but his co-workers regularly stay late without compensation (some of them work from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. without overtime pay).

Mel is familiar with the ESB website but decided the process of filing a complaint was “not worth it,” and that he would not want to sit down with his employer to discuss his complaint. Mel thinks the process should change. (p. 26)
BC’s rules around child labour have been even worse than Alberta’s and the result has been serious injury to young workers:
Justin was 12 when he started a job at an auto salvage company. On his first day, he was stacking car batteries and battery acid spilled on him, soaking through his clothes and burning his chest. He received no medical treatment on the worksite and was told to keep working. He still has scars on his chest from the acid burns.

Cara has permanent disabilities in her back and wrists from working with animals when she was 13. Cara’s employer blamed her for incurring injuries and promptly fired her. When Cara’s mother complained, the employer paid Cara some compensation for the injuries. However, Cara was not rehired and the employer never filed an injury report. Four years later, Cara still has debilitating pain and avoids using one of her hands.

Cory was 13 when he started working. He was hired to work construction cleanup at ap- proximately 35 hours per week. Though the law requires an employer to obtain a letter of permission from a parent before hiring someone under the age of 15, Cory’s parents weren’t asked for such a letter. Corey was promised a video game as payment, which he never received. On one occasion, he fell through scaffolding and landed one story below. Corey’s boss offered him a beer. He was in pain for about a week, and no WorkSafeBC accident report was filed. (p. 32)
The stories of temporary foreign workers employed on farms and as domestics are also worth a read. Finally, the report touches on how worker-hostile the employment standards claim process is in BC:
Bianca was a manager in the kitchen operated by Compass Canada at Hudson’s Bay. Her employer was not paying her for all the hours she worked, nor were they paying her over- time pay. She raised the issue many times with her employer but was told not to worry and that she would be looked after. Bianca finally quit and filed a complaint with ESB. She was required to participate by phone in a mediation with her employer and an ESB officer. Bianca’s employer kept giving “low ball” offers to try to get her to settle. When she did not accept any of the offers, the officer told her she should settle and stop wasting everyone’s time. Bianca refused to settle and a hearing was scheduled.

The employer did not show up for the first hearing date. At the second hearing, the employer did not bring the paperwork they had been asked to bring. During the proceedings, the officer treated Bianca with disrespect. He often turned his back on her, and referred to her, when speaking with the employer, as “she” and “her,” but never by name. The officer got into arguments with the complainant. She was finally pressured into settling for less than what was owed to her. It took months to reach this settlement. “After the hearing I went outside and cried,” said Bianca. “I was so intimidated and furious and disappointed with how I was treated.”

“I would tell people not to bother filing an employment standards complaint unless they have a lawyer,” said Bianca, when asked for advice to give other workers. “They will just end up frustrated and even more angry. The system is not made for solving violations. The self-help kit is designed to intimidate people and it is difficult to understand.” (p. 51).
It is worth noting that “Since 2000/2001, the number of branch offices has been reduced from 17 to 9 (a 47 per cent reduction), and the total number of branch staff has been reduced from148 to 74 (a 50 per cent reduction). At the same time, total employment in BC has increased by 23 per cent, and the number of establishments with employees has increased by 25 per cent.” (p. 53)

Overall, the report suggests three things: (1) BC’s Employment Standards are inadequate, (2) what standards there are routinely violated by employers to minimize labour costs, and (3) BC does a very poor job of enforcing the standards. An open question is whether BC’s recently elected New Democratic government will do anything meaningful about it.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 10, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Midnight regulations

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Midnight Regulations” by Alexisonfire. This song appears to be about the pressure—both economic and moral--that workers find themselves in at work:
Burned his candle down
Working to make ends meet
And
They say just to hold onto your hope
But you know if you swallow your pride
You will choke
Now I may be missing something here around the use of midnight regulations. My understanding of midnight regulations is at they are rules enacted by US agencies by an outgoing president in order to box in his/her successor. I don’t quite see the link, but perhaps this is a nod to ability of the powerful to manipulate the future of workers with no accountability for the consequences?
And now he's hanging on
To his final stitch of faith
So, here's to all the years
Of deaf ear fallen prayers
Rich men behind closed doors
Are trying to keep him in his place
The most melodious version of this song is here. The only video I could find is this live, sharper-edged interpretation from (I think) the band’s final tour.



I find myself concerned
For the common man, these days
Evil are the minds
That push the divide
Forced to live a life
In fear that his future is on the wane
Midnight regulations
Midnight regulations

Burned his candle down
Working to make ends meet
But what can be done
About the way things have become
Fingers to the bone
Ready to admit defeat
Midnight regulations
Midnight

Brother! There is no charity
For the common man
When he is in need of relief

And now he's hanging on
To his final stitch of faith
So, here's to all the years
Of deaf ear fallen prayers
Rich men behind closed doors
Are trying to keep him in his place
Midnight regulations
Midnight regulations

Oh, all you common men
You need to fight for a new way
Old hearts, we need to mend
It's time to start again
Palace walls dismantled
Brick by brick, you will have your day
Midnight regulations
Midnight

Brother! There is no charity
For the common man
When he is in need of relief

They say just to hold onto your hope
But you know if you swallow your pride
You will choke

Brother! There is no charity (there is no charity)
For the common man
When he is in need of relief (when he is in need)
Brother!
Brother!
Men!
Men!
Midnight Regulations
Midnight,
Midnight regulations

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bill 19 a missed opportunity on violence prevention

Last week, Alberta introduced and passed (!) Bill 19, An Act to Protect Gas and Convenience Store Workers. This legislation requires customers to pay before pumping in an effort to prevent gas-and-dash injuries as well as increases employers’ obligations around staff safety. Unfortunately, Bill 19 was only a half-measure that leaves workers vulnerable to other, more common forms of workplace violence.

The pay-before-you-pump requirement is long overdue. BC enacted Grant’s Law in 2005 and, in doing so, eliminated gas-and-dash deaths. Interestingly, last autumn’s consultation on this legislation revealed that 77% of filling stations already had this technology in place. In this way, pay-before-you-pump is another instance of the law catching up with practice. And this practice benefits employers by reducing theft. That said, this is laudable move by Alberta’s New Democratic government.

The majority of Bill 19, however, is focused on setting out requirements around violence prevention in convenience stores and gas stations. Stats on violence-related injuries are hard to find (and, notably, aren’t a part of the background info on Bill 19). Last autumn’s consultation suggested there were 83 employee assaults resulting in lost-time claims from 2011 to 2015. And, more broadly, there were about 750 victims of crime in this sector (victims include workers and bystanders) in 2012. One implication is that in-store violence is a much numerically larger issue than gas-and-dash.

BC’s legislation requires employers to choose among three options if they employ retail workers between 11 pm and 6 am:
  1. Assign two employees to the job.
  2. Install a physical barrier between the worker and the public.
  3. Implement a violence protection program (e.g., time locked safe, good visibility, video surveillance, emergency transmitter).
Most employers have opted for option 3 because it is the cheapest and least disruptive option. Option 3 has been the norm for bigger retailers at least as far back as 1989, when I was an overnight gas jockey. Alberta’s legislation requires employers to only comply with option 3—basically legally mandating the best practices common 30 years ago.

The weakness of this approach is that it is basically a robbery-prevention program, rather than a violence-prevention program. Certainly, robbery prevention programs will have some spill over effect on violence (as some violence occurs during robberies). What stats are available on violence in convenience stores (and they are poor) from the US suggests that only 20% of homicides have a robbery connection.

We also know that robbery-prevention programs don’t necessarily prevent violence. For example, the existence of a robbery-prevention program did not prevent the deaths of two Edmonton Mac’s employees in 2015, who were killed after being robbed for what little cash was in the till. Barriers might well have prevented these deaths.

At last year’s consultation, employers resisted the requirement to install barriers because of the expected cost and operational impact (e.g., it interferes with workers perform other duties like cleaning and stocking). Indeed, the convenience-store lobby led the charge in BC to weaken Grant’s Law in 2012 and allow the substitution of a robbery-prevention program in lieu of barriers or two staff members.

Alberta’s decision to adopt the weakest of BC’s three options leaves convenience-store and gas-station workers at significant risk of workplace violence. These changes appear consistent with the Notley’s government’s “getting to average” pattern on labour legislation, wherein the limits of employment law changes appear to be the rules that are already widely adopted elsewhere (apparently, even if they don’t really work).

Since most major gas and convenience-store chains already comply with these rules, there is going to be little employer push back on the changes. Indeed, there is going to be praise. For example:
“Pre-payment eliminates the risks associated with fuel payments, and we applaud the government for taking this important step to protect attendants and the public. We believe this is the right thing to do – and so do the people working at our stations.”
Lawrence Richler, vice-president, Canadian Products Marketing, Husky Energy Inc.

“A safe store environment is paramount to 7-Eleven Canada and we believe pre-payment of fuel purchases will improve employee and public safety in Alberta. For many years, 7-Eleven Canada has run an employee safety program similar to the safety plan announced today. It stems from our commitment to our employees and the communities we serve.”
Doug Rosencrans, vice-president and general manager, 7-Eleven Canada
Yet praise from industry (which has been spared significant costs) does not necessarily mean that the government got the balance right. Under Bill 19, vulnerable workers remain vulnerable to workplace violence. Overall, this is missed opportunity to put worker safety before employer profitability. Even the usually supportive Alberta Federation of Labour issued a press release noting this gap in the NDs' bill.

I suspect the NDs know Bill 19 is a half measure (or they got really bad policy advice). And that is why they are pushing the gas-and-dash narrative (which is a clear win for workers and an easy sell) while downplaying (and, frankly, misrepresenting) the so-called violence-prevention measures.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 3, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Links on the Chain

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Links on the chain” by Phil Ochs. This song was originally released in 1965 and is a rebuke to trade unionists who failed to support the civil rights movements.

The song starts by noting that organized labour (which was a powerful force in the 1960s) had to fight for recognition against the forces of the state and employers. Yet, once accepted (more or less), powerful actors declined to support the civil rights movement.
Oh, the black man was a rising fast, racing from the shade
And your union took no stand and your union was betrayed
Ochs points out that civil rights activists used many of the same tactics as early labour activists to seek accommodation of their interests. Yet unionists did not act in solidarity, in part because they feared (or were told to fear) for the expansion of the labour pool that equality might bring.
And the man who tries to tell you that they'll take your job away
He's the same man who was scabbing hard just the other day
And your union's not a union till he's thrown out of the way
This is a very critical song (Ochs opens the song by condemning homophobia… in 1965!) that holds lessons for today’s trade unionists about the importance of solidarity across traditional divisions.



Come you ranks of labor, come you union core
And see if you remember the struggles of before
When you were standing helpless on the outside of the door
And you started building links
On the chain, on the chain
And you started building links
On the chain

When the police on the horses were waiting on demand
Riding through the strike with the pistols in their hands
Swinging at the skulls of many a union man
As you built one more link
On the chain, on the chain
As you built one more link
On the chain

Then the army of the fascists tried to put you on the run
But the army of the union, they did what could be done
Oh, the power of the factory was greater than the gun
As you built one more link
On the chain, on the chain
As you built one more link
On the chain

And then in 1954, decisions finally made
Oh, the black man was a rising fast, racing from the shade
And your union took no stand and your union was betrayed
As you lost yourself a link
On the chain, on the chain
As you lost yourself a link
On the chain

And then there came the boycotts and then the freedom rides
And forgetting what you stood for, you tried to block the tide
Oh, the automation bosses were laughing on the side
As they watched you lose your link
On the chain, on the chain
As they watched you lose your link
On the chain

You know when they block your trucks boys by laying on the road
All that they are doing is all that you have showed
That you gotta strike, you gotta fight to get what you are owed
When you're building all your links
On the chain, on the chain
When you're building all your links
On the chain

And the man who tries to tell you that they'll take your job away
He's the same man who was scabbing hard just the other day
And your union's not a union till he's thrown out of the way
And he's choking on your links
Of the chain, of the chai
And he's choking on your links
Of the chain

For now the times are telling you the times are rolling on
And you're fighting for the same thing, the jobs that will be gone
Now it's only fair to ask your boys, which side are you on?
As you're building all your links
On the chain, on the chain
As you're building all your links
On the chain

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Alberta Labour 2016/17 Annual Report


Alberta Labour released its 2016/17 annual report earlier this year. Here are some highlights that touch on safe, fair and healthy workplaces

Labour Relations
Both Labour Board hearings and certification applications have dropped by 20% or more over the past two years. It will be interesting to see if card-check certification results in a reversal of this trend in organizing.

Despite this decline, wait times for hearings are rising, averaging 66 days (the target is 70). Decision times are also lagging, with only 63% of decisions being rendered in 90 days or less (target is 85%). This is explained as reflecting (in part) the temporary unavailability of adjudicators.

Employment Standards
Complaint numbers held steady this year but there was a significant increase in the number of files closed (addressing a backlog). While the government recovered $4.61 million in unpaid wages, it is unclear what percentage of owed wages this comprises.



Only 49% of ES complaints were completed within 180 days of receipt. The target is 65% and ES has failed to meet the target in each of the last 5 years. This may reflect staffing levels, as there are only 45 ES inspectors and 8 other staff in Alberta, which has a non-union workforce of about 1.8 million.



Over 670 inspections were conducted this year (focusing on youth and temporary foreign workers). This is up significantly from the 108 inspections conducted in 2014/15.

Most inspections uncovered multiple violations about overtime, holiday pay and record keeping. That most inspections found violations is a good indication of widespread non-compliance with the law and suggests additional enforcement is required to deter employers from violating the law.

Occupational Health and Safety
It appears there was about a 40% jump in OHS inspections this past year to 8648 inspections (and 3618 re-inspections). About 1600 of these (re)inspections occurred around the Fort McMurray fire clean-up and rebuilding. Given this, it is unclear if this increase in inspections is permanent or just reflects an one-time bump. It is also unclear what proportion of employers these inspections affected but the usual number is about 2%. 



There were slight increases in prosecutions (13, up 2) and fines ($1.6m, up $100k) and 23 charges were laid. The court put three employers on corporate probation and also sentenced on employer to community service. There were 129 tickets issued for minor violations (54 to employers, 75 to workers). There were also 9 administrative penalties issued to employers.

Give that there were 44,543 disabling injuries reported in 2016, these numbers seem pretty low. Clearly OHS is still trying to soft-sell compliance by writing 7848 compliance orders rather than using sanctions. That employers are consistently found to be violating the Act and Code suggests that this soft approach does not appear to deter violations.

There was an inspection blitz of gas stations and convenience stores. This is likely related to concern over the safety of workers prompted by gas-and-dash deaths and violence-related fatalities. There were 378 (re)inspections between February and May 2016 with 463 orders written.

The ministry is also claiming partial credit for prior inspection blitz in the residential construction sector falls from roofs (from 20 to 9). I’m pretty skeptical of this claim. Most injuries are not reported, construction activity has been off due to the downturn (so there are fewer roofers working), and my (admittedly casual) observations of activity in west Edmonton shows no real change in the incidence of fall protection being used (almost never).

Vulnerable Workers
A joint OHS-employment standards blitz was undertaken focused on vulnerable workers employed by employers previously demonstrating chronic non-compliance (it is a bit hard to tell if this includes the ES and OHS inspections noted above—I expect so). Not surprisingly, the 287 inspections (and 201 re-inspections) yielded 472 compliance orders (mostly addressing hazard assessment, emergency preparedness, first aid and violence). This blitz continues this year. It will be interesting to see if chronic violators experience escalating sanctions.

Injury Rates and Safety Perceptions
The number and rate of lost-time claims continues to decline in Alberta. The (more expansive) disabling injury rate is also declining. That said, we should be cautious of this data. A recent study I’m currently writing up surveyed 2000 Alberta workers about their injury reporting practices and confirmed earlier studies that 69% of disabling injuries are never reported.


The government routinely surveys Albertans about their perceptions. Regarding safety, 90% of Albertans felt their workplaces were safe. It is important to note that this measure has three answers (very safe somewhat safe, and not safe). The two positive answers are combined to get the final result. This answer set certainly raises the question of biasing the results (two positive and one negative) and the government will be dropping this measure in the next business cycle.

Financing and Measurement Changes
Overall, the government spent about $61m on safe, fair and healthy workforce activities ($3m less than budgeted). It looks like about $45.3m of this came from transfers from the Workers’ Compensation Board to offset the entire cost of Occupational Health and Safety programming. There was a $2.4 million increase in the Safe, Fair and Healthy Workplaces budget, most of which was aimed at occupational health and safety (p.12).

An interesting and encouraging pattern in the report is mentioning that the performance measures will change next year. For example, instead of measuring the number of collective agreements that settle without a work stoppage, the government will measures days lost per 1000 employees (p.19). This provides a finer measure and also attributes work stoppage effects to the year in which they occurred, rather than the year in which the agreement settled.

Overall, the quality of the information in the Alberta Labour annual report continues to improve. The performance it records continues to be mixed, with staffing issues (which is basically a matter of funding) negatively affecting the ability of the government to ensure that employers comply with their statutory obligations.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 27, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Working on the highway

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Working on the Highway” by Bruce Springsteen. Originally entitled “Child bride”, the song chronicles the story of a unionized highway worker who… well, turns out to be a pedophile. It is slightly less creepy than that (the technical term is child marriage) but that is basically the gist.

The interesting "work" aspect of the song is that, after going to jail, the worker ends up doing highway work for the warden. Prison labour is a growing phenomenon is the United States. It follows a long tradition of prison operators seeking to recoup the costs of incarceration by leasing prisoners to private companies. You can read a brief synopsis here. If you have ever bought a paint brush, you've likely bought the work of a prisoner.

Often this work is framed as rehabilitative (e.g., teaching skills). In practice, the work prisoners do is rarely skilled. What it does is tire out prisoners and give them some pocket money (usually a pittance) thus making them more manageable. The profits of their labour go to the corporations that operate the jails.

These corporations have, in turn, struck deals with several states for a continuous supply of labour (regardless of the level of crime). This incentivizes incarceration and helps explain why America has 2 million prisoners (often members of visible minorities)



Friday nights pay night guys fresh out of work
Talking about the weekend scrubbing off the dirt
Some heading home to their families some looking to get hurt
Some going down to stovell wearing trouble on their shirts

I work for the county out on 95
All day I hold a red flag and watch the traffic pass me by
In my head I keep a picture of a pretty little miss
Someday mister I’m gonna lead a better life than this

Working on the highway laying down the blacktop
Working on the highway all day long I don't stop
Working on the highway blasting through the bedrock
Working on the highway, working on the highway

I met her at a dance down at the union hall
She was standing with her brothers back up against the wall
Sometimes we’d go walking down the union tracks
One day I looked straight at her and she looked straight back

Working on the highway...

I saved up my money and I put it all away
I went to see her daddy but we didn't have much to say
Son can't you see that she's just a little girl
She don't know nothing about this cruel cruel world

We lit out down to Florida we got along all right
One day her brothers came and got her and they took me in a black and white
The prosecutor kept the promise that he made on that day
And the judge got mad and he put me straight away
I wake up every morning to the work bell clang
Me and the warden go swinging on the charlotte county road gang

Working on the highway...

-- Bob Barnetson