Thursday, September 26, 2013

Parkland fact sheet on injury rates and the union effect

The Parkland Institute has published a new fact sheet on workplace injuries in Alberta. This fact sheet presents research from a broader project about the union effect on workers, workplaces and society.

The gist is that (1) Alberta workplaces are exceptionally dangerous, something the government hides through selective reporting (see graphic above) and (2) workplaces with high levels of employee participation in workplace safety (usually unionized worksites) tend to be safer.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Provinces reject federal Canada Jobs Grant program

The Edmonton Journal is reporting today that the provinces have declined to participate in the federal government’s Canada Jobs Grants initiative announced in the spring budget. This is the program that the feds advertised during the hockey playoffs that didn’t yet (and may never) exist

The basics of the CJG program are that the feds, the province and an employer would each contribute $5000 (for a total of $15,000) that an individual could then use to get training. This sounds good but first impressions are often deceiving.

First, there is no new money here. The federal portion (about $33m in Alberta) would come from existing money (about $50m--I can't find the exact number so am inferring this from national data) the feds gives the province. Alberta uses the existing money to do various things, including adult upgrading and training, running employment centres and whatnot. Losing this $33m to the CJG would radically curtail other job-training services unless the province could come up with $33m to replace it.

The catch is that Alberta would not only have to come up with $33m to replace the lost federal money, but also another $33m to match the federal contribution (so the price tag for Alberta is $66m).  In effect, going along with the CJG would significantly reduce job-training programming in Alberta (I'm unable to find a solid number on what the province spends currently). 

And, of course, employers would need to come up with (collectively) $33m for their portion. I’m not saying this won’t happen, but employers have been reluctant to fund training in the past (witness their unwillingness to hire apprentices but then bitch about the lack of skilled tradespeople).

The basic thinking behind the CJG is that there are employment-ready workers who just need a bit of (re)training to get back into the workforce. This may be true in Ontario where the decline in manufacturing has resulted in layoffs of employment-ready workers.

This is less true in Alberta where anyone not in the labour market likely faces several barriers to joining, such as difficulties with literacy/numeracy. As Dave Hancock notes in the Journal story, the CJG will pull funding from adult upgrading programs (programs that help the presently unemployable) and directing it towards job-specific training (in Alberta, basically helping the employed get better jobs).

It is hard to know what to make of the CJG. It looks like something cooked up over drinks in Ottawa at the last minute by people who have no idea how employment training works. Yet it allows the feds to either (1) direct provincial training efforts or, if the provinces refuse to knuckle under, (2) save $300m nationally and shift the blame for this de facto budget cut to the provinces.

Then there is the difficult issue that the skills gap the feds keep talking about to justify this change may not really exist… .  And, if Alberta and the feds can’t agree on the CJG, does this jeopardize the entire $50m Alberta has been getting from the feds under the Labour Market Agreement (which expires in March)?

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, September 23, 2013

Alberta Oil Magazine and workplace safety

Alberta Oil Magazine recently published (to my surprise!) an op-ed I wrote re: health and safety stats.

In Alberta's injury statistics are inherently flawed: But it it willful blindness?, I argue:
Despite sunshine-and-lollipop press releases about injury trends, provincial government injury data is unreliable and often presented in a misleading manner. This poses a significant barrier to executives in the energy and oilfield services industries who want to make intelligent decisions about safety initiatives and risk reduction strategies.
So far reaction has been muted. Thoughts anyone?

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Farm worker rights editorial

The September 2 edition of Alberta Farmer Express had an interesting editorial talking about farm worker rights.

After reprising the basics of the debate (such as asking why do farm workers growing vegetables in a greenhouse have the right to refuse unsafe work while farm workers growing vegetables in a field don't) the editorial raises a number of interesting questions about the inequity in Alberta fields.

I asks what role do private insurance companies (who benefit from the WCB exclusion of farmers) play in the current situation? I'd never considered this specific angle before but it is an interesting one.

How can the federal government approve foreign farm worker applications for Alberta when it knows that those workers will not receive the same (or any) OHS and WCB protection and coverage as the same workers in every other province?

Why does Alberta continue to resist extending basic rights to agricultural workers when mandatory OHS and WCB coverage has clearly not devastated agricultural operations in other provinces?

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Justifying migrant workers in Alberta

Monday, the ministers responsible for skill development in the western provinces issued a joint communique. After dissing the federal government's new Canada Jobs Grant and the usual platitudes about "best practices", they made yet another pitch for more (im)migrant workers:
Though making sure Canadians are first in line for the jobs that will come with a growing Western economy, we recognize that attracting foreign talent is one key element to our overall success and our erasing potential skills shortages. Immigration will help fill the gap for all three provinces. We will work together to influence federal immigration policy and program decisions to ensure immigration and in particular economic immigration and temporary foreign worker programs meet the needs of the West. (p.1).
The recent assertion that temporary and permanent foreign migrant workers are the solution to the labour shortage goes back to about 2001 (although obviously Canada's use of such workers has a longer history). This summer, Jason Foster and I published an article entitled The political justification of migrant workers in Alberta, Canada.

In this article, we examine how Alberta government MLAs justified the (ab)use of migrant workers from 2000 to 2011 and interrogate the three narratives that emerged: (1) labour shortages require migrant workers, (2) migrants do not threaten Canadian jobs and (3) migrants are not being exploited. Close scrutiny of each narrative demonstrates them to be largely invalid and this suggests a significant disconnect between the real and espoused reasons for the significant changes to labour market policy, changes that advantage employers and disadvantage both Canadian and foreign workers.

Given the continued interest in permanent and temporary migration by the federal and provincial governments, this article suggests we should be cautious about accepting at face value government statements about migration. For example, are there currently unfilled jobs in Alberta? Yes. But we should acknowledge that labour shortages are relative, rather than absolute, events. 

Specifically, the current domestic labour force represents those workers prepared to accept work for prevailing wages and working conditions. According to classical economic theory, better wages and working conditions ought to bring about an equilibrium between supply and demand without further government intervention in the labour market. 

Conservative governments (who generally buy into classical economic theory, even if they don't walk the talk) intervening to supply more migrant workers seems likely to result in wage suppression via creating a glut in supply.  Such an intervention benefits employers (who realize lower labour costs and thus higher profits). 

And thus we ought to question the truth behind statements like this one, which talks about increased migration benefitting businesses and consumers (who are often other businesses) while ignoring the impact of the policy upon, say, "workers" and "citizens".
It was the vision of premiers Christy Clark of B.C., Alison Redford of Alberta, and Brad Wall of Saskatchewan that led to our working group being tasked to build on the New West Partnership by finding ways to co-operate and make it easier for businesses and consumers to benefit from economic growth across Canada’s West.
-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

OHS ticketing (quietly) rolls out in Alberta

On Friday, the government quietly proclaimed changes to statutes and enacted regulations that bring about health and safety ticketing and administrative penalties in Alberta.

The gist is that the government can now ding OHS rule violators with administrative penalties of up to $10,000 starting October 1, which offers an alternative to expensive (and rare) prosecutions. And, on January 1, OHS officers will also be able to issue tickets to anyone caught violating OHS rules.

The government has been talking about this since 2003 so it is nice to see some action… after 10 years and two rounds of legislative change. Oddly for a government that issues a press release virtually every time a Minister makes boom-boom, there was no notice unless you happen read Orders in Council (hands up, policy dorks…), although I see a Herald story on in yesterday’s paper. Perhaps there will be an advertising campaign prior to the rollout dates?

Ticketing systems that allow the government to ticket workers are often criticized as contributing to the suppression of injury reporting (e.g., employer says to employee, “if you report that, you’re gonna get a ticket”). Employers are mpotivated to do this because it lowers their claim record and thus their premium, but it has serious implications for workers’ injury compensation as well as the accuracy of injury stats

There are a couple of key things to watch for as ticketing and admin penalties come online. The first is, will OHS officers issue tickets and will the Director of OHS issue admin penalties?

Back in 2008 (or maybe 2009?) an internal survey of provincial OHS officers uncovered some reluctance to ticket. This reflects decades of an “education instead of enforcement” approach (which has likely placed some selection pressure on the officer ranks) as well as (a legitimate) concern about getting punched out.

Whether officers will have the inclination or the director will have the stones to take on repeated bad actors and politically powerful interests is an open question.

And this leads to the second question: who is going to get ticketed and penalized?

Workers are the easiest target politically. And they will likely feature in most analyses of the proximate cause of injuries. Yet the root cause of injuries is generally the placement of a hazard in the workplace by the employer during the job design process, perhaps combined with uneven enforcement of worker compliance with safety rules.

I wonder how nuanced attributions of blame are going to be in ticketing? Should be a fun set of FOIP requests once there is some administrative data to rake through!

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, September 9, 2013

Inclusion and exclusion of migrant workers in Fort McMurray

The Canadian Journal of Sociology recently putout a special issue addressing community in Fort McMurray. Jason Foster and Alison Taylor article entitled In the shadows: The notion of “community” for temporary foreign workers in a boomtown.

This article examines how conceptions of community and social cohesion is effected by the presence of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in the oilsands. Among the study’s conclusions are that foreign workers are excluded from the life of the community. Among the factors causing this exclusion are TFWs’ vulnerable and precarious connection to the labour market, experiences of discrimination, and conflicted transnational community identities.

Some of the quotations from the TFWs workers paint quite a compelling picture of their vulnerability and exclusion:
If you don’t have permanent residence you’re always afraid [of] everybody, afraid [of] your boss that you’ll be sent back home. You don’t have peace of mind. That’s a problem when you [are a] foreign worker, you’re always thinking before you go to sleep what will happen tomorrow, I might be sent back home. You don’t know. (15, TFW) I said, “No, because Sunday I can’t go to work because I have to go to church.” He knew that already long time ago but he insisted. “You have to work Saturday and Sunday.” I said, “No, not now.”… So he said, “You know what, I will [get] a boat and I will send you home.” (16, TFW) We were assigned on nightshift because no one likes to work at night.… Canadians don’t like to work nightshift. So we have no choice, we have to work in the night. (15, TFW)
The split identity and sense of obligations evinced by TFWs is also quite an interesting finding:
It’s really hard [to leave my family] the first time because we have this bond. It’s our culture, bonded family. For the first time it’s really hard but I’m figuring out that [my] kids are growing up and they want to go to university and I can’t let them go. That’s really hard for me, big responsibility. (13, TFW) I was hoping that I will bring here my family and also my kids will settle here. That is the only thing that I want to pursue now. I want also to help my brother and sister and my wife’s brother and sister. That is the main thing [why] I want to stay here. (18, TFW)
Overall, an interesting glimpse into questions of community and inclusion in McMurray.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Two studies on migrant workers

A couple of interesting studies about migrant workers have been released:

StatCan has released Interprovincial employees in Alberta which examines the growth of interprovincial worker migrancy (residing in one province and working in another) between 2003 and 2010. There was significant growth in Alberta’s migrant workforce between 2004 and 2008 followed by a decline in 2009. Ongoing interprovincial migrancy appears to be displacing inter-provincial immigration.

Interprovincial migrants are most likely from Atlantic Canada and British Columbia, with Ontario and Saskatchewan also making significant contributions. The majority of migrants were male and employed in construction, energy, accommodation and food services, and retail jobs.

Employment and Social Development Canada also released an internal review of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program over the summer. The review is generally upbeat (not surprising) but there are a few items.

Where employment standards violations occur the most commonly identified issues were work hours, overtime pay, or job duties being different than specified.
Those workers who said their job was somewhat or much worse than expected (6% of SAWs, 7% of lower-skilled workers, 7% of high-skilled workers, and 11% of live-in caregivers) noted that the work is different or involves extra duties, the position involves less responsibility or requires less skill, the work is harder, the working conditions are tougher, the manager is not effective or supportive, the pay is less than expected, or the hours of work are different. (Section 3.2.2)
Interestingly, Alberta does not share any data about employment standards violations with the feds, which means that no Alberta employers are going to be blacklisted for violations. This seems to be a significant loop-hole that eliminates the major disincentive for employers to exploit these workers through rights violations.

There is lip service paid to the potential impact of the TFW program on the Canadian labour market, but little real investigation:
The key concern is that, by reducing the imbalance between the demand and supply of labour, the TFWP could constrain the wages offered to Canadians and permanent residents. Key informants also raised concerns regarding the increasing long-term reliance of employers on the TFWP. About one-quarter of stakeholders suggested that, due to access to the TFWP, employers may invest less in the training of Canadians, spend less time and effort to find Canadian workers to fill the positions, and pay less than prevailing wages to TFWs. (Section 3.2.3)
The government has promised a review of the economic impact of the TFW program in 2013/14, including the impact upon domestic wages and working conditions (Management Response 7).

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Research on teen workers in Alberta

A couple of Alberta-specific studies about the employment of young people have recently been published.

In Incidence of work and workplace injury among Alberta teens, I report survey results from a convenience sample of approximately 2000 Alberta youth. Of those employed, 49.7 percent of adolescents and 59.0 percent of young persons reported at least one work-related injury in the previous year. This study also identifies widespread non-reporting of workplace injuries and seemingly ineffective hazard identification and safety training.

In Health and safety for Canadian youth in trades, Milosh Raykov and Alison Taylor find a high incidence of work-related injuries among youth in Ontario and Alberta apprenticeship training programs and low participation rates of younger workers in formal OHS training. Up to one fifth of former participants reported suffering serious occupational injuries, which required time off work.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

WCB Conference: No Half Measures

No Half Measures is a conference October 31-November 2 in Toronto examining the state of workers' compensation 100 years after Sir William Meredith's report on addressing the injustices associated with occupational injury. This report led to the passage of Ontario's Workmen's Compensation Act.

Registraton has now opened. The program looks quite interesting. Thursday, October 31 will see a bus tour that includes Meredith's Rosedale home, gravesite and the building thet housed Ontario's forst Workmen's Compensation Bard in 1915. It concludes with a tour of Osgoode Hall Court House where Meredith served as Ontario's Chief Justice and where he wrote his 1913 report. Dinner and keynote speakers follow.

The next two days are at the Ontario Federation of Labour auditorium in Don Mills. Friday night is also the annual Health and Safety Awards dinner recognizing labour activists who have made a difference in the prevention of work-related injury and disease as well as fair compensation for the injured. The program has not yet issued but I expect there will be some discussion of the hearings that occurred around Ontario over the past few months about the state of workers' compensation.

-- Bob Barnetson