Friday, August 31, 2012

Teacher bargaining update

Yesterday, the government tried to dampen public-sector wage expectations yesterday with their mid-year financial update. This has implications for teacher bargaining (all contracts expire today), nursing (in March) and doctors (March 2011).

CBC had an interesting interview with Frank Bruseker from Calgary today.

The province, ATA and school boards are presently attempting to strike a province-wide deal. This is the second attempt at a province-wide deal. If this fails, the ATA locals will go back to bargaining with individual school boards, which have not been going all that well--reflecting that school boards have no real ability to raise their own revenue.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Farm fatality stats updated

Alberta has released 2011 farm fatality stats. In 2011 there were 18 death, down from 22 in 2010. That said, the numbers were roughly consistent with results from the past 10 years (the average being around 18 fatalities). Of these 2011 fatalities, three were of children under age 18 and only one occurred while a child was working.

In the April newsletter of the Alberta Centre for Injury Reduction there is an interesting table that tracks the rate of Alberta farm fatalities per 100,000 farm population over time by age.

What this table shows is that the rate (not necessarily the absolute number) of fatalities among children (0-14) has increases dramatically since 1992 (green line). Some of this rate increase reflects that population of children on the farm has declined by 52%. This means (very roughly speaking) that the number of fatalities has stayed about constant but it occurs among a much smaller pool of children.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

BC coalition seeks tougher child labour laws

Activists in BC are seeking tougher child labour laws. In 2003, BC amended its child labour laws, making it easier to employer children and increase parental responsibility for determining if work is appropriate. The only limits on occupational choice is "no mining". Now that is laudable (mining is dangerous) but so too are a host of other occupations! Within a year of these changes, WCB claims by children rose tenfold.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, August 27, 2012

Criminalizing workplace death

A new article in the British Journal of Criminology addresses the move to criminalize occupational fatalities. “Communication and social regulation: The criminalization of work-related death” posits that public demands on politicians to “do something” about workplace fatalities creates political risks they must attend to. These risks reflect, in part, that government regulation is often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as ineffective. Criminalizing workplace fatalities is one (largely symbolic) response to this risk by channeling this demand into a manageable process.

We see similar efforts in Canada and Australia to hold corporations and directors criminally liable for workplace fatalities. Yet criminal prosecutions, like regulatory ones, remain very rare. This may reflects all manner of factors, include that workplace fatalities are often considered to occur in the context of legitimate activity (i.e., making a profit via legal business) thus different from deaths that occur from illegitimate activity (e.g., a drug deal gone wrong).

Criminalizing some workplace deaths creates the sense that something important has been done: symbolically, actors are being held responsible for their actions. And, in a few cases, actors will be held actually responsible via prosecution and conviction. Yet the question remains whether criminalizing such behaviour is any more effective than the existing regulatory system. Does it cause additional care to be taken? Is it associated with a reduction in injury or death?

Perhaps it is mostly a political strategy to manage the pressure that comes with widespread injury and death in the workplace. Legislators can say “there, we made it illegal” (now please sod off) without fundamentally affecting the operation of businesses. It also fits within the basic neoliberal approach to regulation: regulating criminality is a legitimate activity for the state while regulating the market is not. The question then becomes, when people realizing criminalizing workplace fatalities is in fact ineffective, what will regulators do?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, August 24, 2012

Calgary Herald calls out Tories on farm safety

In a fairly blunt editorial Wednesday, the Calgary Herald called out Alberta Premier Alison Redford for not following through on her promise to regulate safety on Alberta farms, a promise made when she was running for premier.

The paper called the government hiding behind the family farms argument (a charitable label...) as "an exasperating stalling tactic" and noted that while the government claims it is trying to ensure Alberta has the right regulations, "We have no regulations, Minister Hancock."
There are none covering the occupational health and safety concerns of farm workers and none providing them with Workers’ Compensation in the event of injury. Nor are there any governing their working hours, rates of pay or holidays, and no regulation mandating inquiries into farm fatalities.
After detailing all the way kids have been killed working on farms, the editorial concludes:
In December 2008, provincial court Judge Peter Barley issued his recommendations after his inquiry into the asphyxiation death of Kevan Chandler six years ago in a High River-area grain silo. He said, “No logical explanation was given as to why paid employees on a farm are not covered by the same workplace legislation as non-farm employees.” 
That was nearly four years ago, yet Agriculture Ministry spokesman Stuart Elson said Monday, studies are underway by two ministries to determine if the province should enact farm workplace safety laws. 
Enough studies. Been there, done that, and it only resulted in more studies. Alberta remains the only province in Canada without laws to protect farm workers.
Premier Redford, keep your promise. 
Ouch. It is not often that an Alberta newspaper puts a beat-down like that on the Tories. The question is whether it will matter. 

In related news, I have a paper being published this fall on the narratives Alberta conservative MLAs have used to stall and derail demands for safety regulation on Alberta farms that I will post a link to when it is published.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Farm worker fatalities in Alberta

The issue of farm worker safety has hit the news once again. There is the usual stuff about Alberta being the only jurisdiction to deny farm workers basic safety rights and that farm injury stats are skewed through the exclusion of disease and motor-vehicle accidents.

One of the more interesting developments is that Alberta Agriculture indicated two weeks ago that is no longer reporting its count of annual farm worker fatalities. There was no real explanation for this change when it happened--just a quiet line on the page that the reports normally reside on saying 2011 data would not be available due to concerns about the statistics. Viewers were then directed to the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting website (which had no contemporary data).

Predictably, organized labour thought this looked suspicious and complained. The government then told Canadian Press:

Alberta Agriculture said Monday it is reviewing how it publishes information about farmworker deaths and injuries with an eye to protecting the privacy of victims and their families.
Stuart Elson, a ministry spokesman, said updated statistics could be available later this week.
According to FFWD:
“Some of the information we provided, it was providing a little bit too much detail in terms of identifying victims and putting some additional hardship on the families,” says Elson. He says 16 people died while working on Alberta farms in 2011; down from the 22 reported in 2010 but about average for the past decade.

On August 20th (when the heat started), the government updated the website to say:
We are currently in the process of updating statistical information for Alberta Farm Related Fatalities. Updated information will be available shortly.

Perhaps this was simply a roll-out error for a well intentioned change to protect the privacy of families affected by farm-work fatalities. If that is the case, that seems like an awfully big goof-up on a hot-button issue that at least two ministries are looking into. It will be interesting what the government says when it re-releases farm worker fatality stats.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Senior's death ends strike in nursing home

The government has appointed a Public Emergency Tribunal (PET) to resolve the seniors care strike at the Revera Riverbend extended care facility that has run more than 70 days. This strike is part of a series of job actions by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) to get private seniors care providers to match wages offered by public providers.

The unfortunately termed “PET” can be created by the government under ss.112 and 113 of the Labour Relations Code when a strike or a lockout causes health services to be reduced (or ceased) or causes unreasonable hardship to persons not party to the dispute. The strike or lockout ends and the dispute is resolved through arbitration.

PETs are unusual, in part because the government got slapped pretty hard by the court in 2002 when it used one inappropriately to end a teacher strike. In this case, there are reports that replacement workers refused to call 911 for a resident who claimed to be having a stroke, the resident eventually went to hospital (after a 911 call by a relative of another resident) and died.

The government doesn’t mention this incident in its press release—not surprising given the heat it has taken for other deaths in care that have happened on its watch. Rather, it asserts that weekly monitoring by Alberta Health Services identified “a number of deficiencies in the care of the 120 residents.” I

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk specifically denies any relationship between the death and the PET:
Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk said the province decided in intervene after an inspection on Aug. 8th found deterioration in the quality of care, particularly in charting and medication, which he attributed to a high turnover of replacement workers. 
The strike wasn't ended until Tuesday because province needed to follow a legal process under the labour code. 
"This is the earliest that we ... could have done so," Lukaszuk said. 
Lukaszuk said the woman's death was not the reason the province decided to step in.
"A review of quality of care to that particular patient has been done and we are satisifed that that this strike had no impact on this particular client," he said.
This statement is a bit hard to believe. All that is required for a PET is an Order in Council. If there was an emergency (with charting and medication errors being very serious) uncovered on August the 8th (last Wednesday), surely a cabinet meeting could (and should) have been held before yesterday to address the situation.

Under the PET, the parties have 21 days to negotiate a solution (with a mediator’s help) or a government-appointed arbitrator will determine the final settlement. AUPE has recently settled two other strikes at long-term care facilities and received significant concessions from employers. You can view the Order in Council here.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, August 13, 2012

Liberals narc out Alberta child labour to Pepsi

Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann recent wrote a letter to PepsiCo asking it to honor its corporate code of ethics and stop buying potatoes from Alberta for its line of chips. Pepsi's ethical code prohibits suppliers form using child labourers and many Alberta farms do just that.

Swann's argument is that child agricultural labour in Alberta is effectively unregulated. This is true. About the only thing that might apply is child welfare laws. But who would report abuse? The children? Typically they are working for their parents. Are 12-year-olds really going to narc out mommy and daddy? Or even realize they are being endangered?

Swann then "promises" to pursue this issue publicly in the months to come. Y read on this is it is a very gentle threat that he's going to name some big companies that buy products grown with child labour. That should make for some good headlines!

-- Bob Barnetson

Abusing medical leave

Howard Levitt is an employment lawyer who writes for the Financial Post. He tends to favour the employer’s perspective in workplace disputes. While I normally just dismiss what he writes, his latest column is an interesting example of worker blaming.

The gist is that workers use doctors’ notes for time off due to stress frequently, illegitimately and as a way to get back at their employer. While there are likely some folks who abuse the right to time off due to injury, Levitt offers no evidence or even a guess as to how frequently this occurs. Rather, we are treated to this polemic:
Too many doctors hand out medical notes as freely as if they were toilet paper.

Really, what do these doctors even know? They are GPs, not psychiatrists or occupational health specialists. They seldom conduct independent psychiatric tests to ascertain whether their patients are genuinely so stressed as to be disabled from performing any work.

Often its a scam. An employee has a workplace dispute, decides that he or she doesn't want to work and goes to their family doctor, or more frequently, a clinic, to obtain a note. Those notes usually say little more than "Off work for seven days for medical reasons" or something equally nondescriptive.
What research there is on malingering while on workers’ compensation (a similar phenomenon) suggests that rate is very low. In part, this is because the motive (termed secondary gain) for scamming the system is largely offset by the secondary losses associated with being away from work while injured or sick (e.g., loss of reputation, risk of termination, harassment upon return). Interestingly, fraud by employers is much more common (cough, cough).

Odd that a lawyer would fail to provide any real evidence to substantiate his allegations. About the only evidence Levitt musters is: “I have had a rash of recent cases, across Canada, with the same issue”.

Ah, anecdotal evidence, you slippery minx. Sometimes anecdotal evidence is quite useful—if used as part of a careful methodology. Yet most of the time, anecdotal information is misleading. Anecdotes tend to be examples of the unusual (otherwise we wouldn’t bother remembering or retelling them).

That is to say, Levitt’s experience likely isn’t representative of what happens in workplaces across the country. Rather, he is likely seeing a few egregious cases that employers have decided to bring to his firm for attention. He then extrapolates from these as if they are representative of the 20 million-odd Canadians who work.

Interestingly, the comments that follow Levitt’s article (which usually represent a fairly hawkish view of employment) almost universally reject his position. They also raise some good questions. Why are workers so stressed? Why don’t employers reduce stress levels? Why do workers feel compelled to go to a doctor instead of seeking a workplace accommodation?

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Second Canada Post arbitrator tossed by courts

CBC is reporting that the federal court has ordered a second arbitrator in the Canada Post dispute to step down. The arbitrator was appointed to the federal government as part of back-to-work legislation enacted last year.
The first arbitrator was tossed after it turned out he wasn’t bilingual and had little labour relations expertise. The second arbitrator was tossed because he acted as a prosecutor for the employer during a pay equity dispute (1998-2003) and had long-standing ties to the Conservative Party, including being president of the Quebec wing and running as a candidate. This creates the appearance (if not the fact) of bias, thereby undermining the notion of neutral, third-party arbitration.

Appointing arbitrators who are unqualified and/or create the appearance of bias brings further disrepute upon the federal government’s aggressively anti-union approach to labour relations. While I’m no great fan of the court system when it comes to protecting the rights of workers, I am interested to see what the long-term effect of such pro-employer government policy has on the jurisprudence.

Specifically, I wonder whether pro-employer policies will make the court system (and particularly the Supreme Court) more sympathetic to the arguments of labour and, perhaps, result in a further expansion of the freedom of association duties of the state under the Charter?

-- Bob Barnetson