Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Excluding domestic servants and home workers from safety laws

The public consultation period for suggestions about changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act closed yesterday. An issue that did not get much discussion is the household servant exemption set out in Section 1(s)(ii) of the Act. 

The Act currently defines occupation in a way that excludes household servants from its ambit:

1(s) “occupation” means every occupation, employment, business, calling or pursuit over which the Legislature has jurisdiction, except

(ii) work in, to or around a private dwelling or any land use in connection with the dwelling that is performed by an occupant or owner who lives in the private dwelling or a household servant of the occupant or owner;

In practice, this means workers hired by individual homeowners to perform household duties (regardless of whether they live in the home or not) have none of the health-and-safety rights accorded to virtually every other Alberta worker, such as the right to know about the hazards of their work or refuse unsafe work. And, if they are face hazardous working conditions or are injured on the job, they cannot seek assistance from occupational health and safety (OHS) officers.

By contrast, workers hired through an agency to perform the exact same household duties in a private dwelling are considered within the ambit of the Act. It is difficult to explain this double standard except as a political decision (made in 1976) to privilege homeowners (by exempting them from OHS requirements) at the expense of household servants. The changes flowing from the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act suggest that the present government no longer views as appropriate denying basic OHS protections to whole categories of workers.

The number of workers employed as household servants in Alberta is unknown. The absence of data about this population reflects that these workers span several occupational categories, including caregivers (of varying qualifications), cleaners, and maintenance personnel. And these workers have a variety of employment arrangements (e.g., some are agency workers while others are hired individually). Anecdotal reports suggest that the majority of these workers are female.

A significant identifiable group of household servants are foreign nationals who provide caregiving to children, seniors and adults with disabilities. These workers have entered Canada through the caregiver stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker program or, previously, through the Live-In Caregiver program. As of December 31, 2016, there were approximately 2145 foreign caregivers in Alberta.

The literature identifies several hazards common to household servants, including repetitive motions, lifting heavy objects, and exposures to various chemical and biological agents. Live-in caregivers are also exposed to fatigue (due to lengthy shifts) and various forms of abuse (in part, due to their social isolation).

Eliminating the exclusion of household servants from the ambit of the OHS Act will provide much needed workplace protections. Alberta already provides these workers with basic workplace rights under the Employment Standards Code (excepting around overtime and maximum hours of work. By contrast, maintaining the exclusion will disadvantage a predominantly female and often vulnerable group of workers.

If such a change were to take place, it would be important for the government to provide resources to homeowners to assist them with complying with their obligations under the Act (e.g., conducting a hazard assessment). It will also be necessary to provide workers (particularly foreign caregivers) with information about their rights and support in exercising those rights.

A second group denied OHS rights under s.1(s)(ii) are employees who work from home. Currently, the government interprets "working... in a private dwelling... that is performed by an occupant or owner who lives in the private dwelling" to include workers employed by others working out of the worker's home.

This reading of the legislation again creates the situation where two workers doing the same work (one at home and one in an office) have different rights. The home worker has no OHS rights while the office worker has a full suite of rights. 

This discrepancy also offloads the cost of remediating hazards onto the home worker. My employer, for example, has set out certain safety requirements for home workers as part of our employment (e.g., smoke detectors, CO2 detectors, fire extinguishers in our home office, first aid kits) but refuses to pay for any of these materials. The result is that most home workers have ignored this requirement.

Amending s.1(s)(ii) of the OHS Act to exclude employees performing work in their homes would remedy this situation.

 -- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 13, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Making Thunderbirds

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Making Thunderbirds” by Bob Seger. Release in 1982, this song is part of the heartland rock tradition, which valorized (mostly male) blue-collar work.

Seger drew upon his Detroit roots in writing this song, which looks at auto-workers employed by Ford (his dad worked for Ford). When Seger wrote this song, their (difficult) jobs were being automated to the detriment of the workers.
We filled conveyors
We met production
Foremen didn't waste words
Now the years have flown and the plants have changed
And you're lucky if you work
I could not find a video for this (it was not released as a single) but you can listen to the audio below:

The big line moved one mile an hour
So loud it really hurt
The big line moved so loud
It really hurt
Back in '55

We were makin' thunderbirds
We filled conveyors
We met production
Foremen didn't waste words
We met production
Foremen didn't waste words
We were young and proud
We were makin' thunderbirds

We were makin' thunderbirds
We were makin' thunderbirds
They were long and low and sleek and fast
They were all you ever heard
Back in '55

We were makin' thunderbirds
Now the years have flown and the plants have changed
And you're lucky if you work
The big line moves but you're lucky if you work
Back in '55
We were makin' thunderbirds

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Youth employment in Alberta

This morning, the government is hosting a consultations about regulations governing the employment of minors. I wasn't able to attend this consultation but the government kindly allowed me to submit written comments that I am reprising below

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comment on the employment of minors. I have structured my comments to follow the sequence outlined in the discussion guide. I have omitted questions where I had nothing to say.

Artistic Endeavours
1. The definition of artistic endeavor for children 12 and under is complete in my view.

2. I do not see a need to allow children 12 and under to be employed as coaches or assistant coaches. Such activities often involve some element of risk (to the coach and to the athlete) that children under the age of 12 are unlikely to be ready to experience or manage (particularly in a paid role).

3. The proposed definition does align with the types of work appropriate for children aged 12 and under. That said, I note that childcare (i.e., babysitting) is not contemplated as a potential form of work for children 12 and under. I see it is mentioned as an acceptable form of work for 13- to 15-year-olds. Based on this, I infer that babysitting is a prohibited form of work for children 12 and under.

I agree with disallowing domestic work for children under 12 because there are significant hazards (both to the sitter and to the sat) associated with it. Babysitting usually entails working alone (often at night), can include food preparation and equipment operation, and (if something goes wrong) the consequences can be significant.

Hazardous Work
1. Hazardous work is that which gives rise to meaningful risk of serious harm to the worker. Young workers may be at greater risk of harm due to inexperience and/or physiological immaturity.

2. I see you have noted that some work with animals may be too hazardous for 16- to 17-year-olds to perform on farms. Looking through the preliminary definition of hazardous work in attachment 4, I wanted to flag four agricultural implications.
a. Much farm work entails effectively working alone due to the distances involved (even a small grain farm is likely at least 160 acres). 
b. Much farm work entails working with or near powered mobile equipment (which is a significant source of farm injury).

c. Farm work often entails working near (rather than with—this seems to be an oversight on your list) pesticides and excessive noise and such exposures are particularly hazardous to young workers with developing bodies .

d. The variability of farm work creates an environment where hazards are highly dynamic (i.e., exposures change unpredictably) thus using permits may be ineffective at controlling exposures.
While I appreciate the political sensitivities around regulating the employment of 16- to 17-year-olds on farms and ranches, excluding workers from such work may be the most effective way to prevent injuries. Interestingly, the discussion guide suggests there will be no prohibited work—hazardous work would just require employers to obtain a permit.

I see the political utility of not barring 16- to 17-year-olds from any work and, instead, kicking decisions about hazardous work into a private and opaque permitting process. But, really, are you going to approve a permit for a 16-year-old to engage in firefighting or mining or asbestos abatement or installing power lines? It would be more honest to have a list of prohibited work and a list of work requiring a permit. Further, not establishing a list of prohibited occupations makes it easier for future governments to pressure bureaucrats into approving permits for such work. Having a list or prohibited occupations in regulations forces politicians to own such a decision.

3. I would support excluding youth from hazardous job sites regardless of the work the youth is performing. As I noted above, working near hazards is often injurious to young workers.

4. I don’t believe it is possible to define, other than in general terms (along the lines of the definition of “competent” in the OHS Code), what suitable supervision would entail. It is too context dependent.

Light Work
1. I would remove painting because (1) youth are particularly vulnerable to chemical hazards due to their generally smaller size and less developed physiology, (2) the qualification “environmentally friendly substances” is so vague as to be unenforceable, and (3) painting often involves working at heights. I appreciate that work over 3 metres would be considered hazardous but work under 3 meters (often using improvised platforms) also entails significant risk of injury for youth.

Again, appreciating the political sensitivities of the farm and ranch community, given the hazardous nature of the worksite, the small number of 13- to 15-year-olds who will be employed, and the significant restrictions set out in Attachment 3, I would suggest a prohibition on employing 13- to 15-year-olds on a farm or ranch is the most parsimonious way to protect them.

2. While I would not argue that youth should be precluded from working in restaurants, I would point out that my research on adolescent employment in Alberta suggests that employers frequently ignore existing task and equipment restrictions for young workers (e.g., fryers, grills, slicers) as well as hour of work and paycheque-deduction standards, and hazard assessment and parental consent requirements.

More over, young workers generally have no idea that such circumstances are contrary to the Code and their parents neither know their children’s rights nor know what is happening in the workplace. This suggests that there needs to be significant regulation of this work. Simply requiring a permit or a voluntary filing of documents is unsatisfactory because many employers just ignore the requirement. This in turn, reflects that there is virtually no chance such a violation will be picked up due to limited enforcement activity and, if it is, there is no prospect of a meaningful consequence for the employer. In short, you need some sort of meaningful enforcement mechanism.

5. Given the expansive nature of the proposed light work list, I can’t see many instances where a permit would be necessary.

1. The biggest issue with Alberta employment laws overall is that employers simply ignore them. There is little reason to think that employers will comply with permitting requirements unless it is combined with specific and significant sanctions for non-compliance.

3. Permits should require the employer to submit a hazard assessment and control plan and written evidence of parental consent.

4. Permits should not be issued to employers with past records of employment standards or occupational health and safety violations or orders or workplace injuries.

In addition, I would suggest Alberta should adopt Saskatchewan’s requirement for workers to complete a worker preparedness course prior to employment. Such a course could be offered online or through the school system. Young workers are at a significant knowledge and power disadvantage in the workplace and the least the government can do is to provide them with an opportunity to learn about their rights and their employer’s obligations. Such a requirement would have more teeth of a permit was required to hire anyone under 16 but, based on the material provided, I take it that such a requirement is not under discussion.

It is also worth noting the research conducted by Alison Taylor (formerly of the U of A but now of UBC). She and her co-investigators examined the experiences of youth engaged in apprenticeship programming through Alberta’s RAP program (and Ontario’s analog). Of concern is the high level of injury among these young workers. This research warrants consideration as the government examines appropriate controls on apprenticeship and work experience programs.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide my feedback.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 6, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: The Lonesome death of Hattie Carroll

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” written by Bob Dylan. The story recounts the 1963 death of an African-American barmaid. She was killed by a wealthy, drunk, and racist white man (and later slumlord) in Maryland and who later served just six months in jail.

It’s comforting to think of the kind of systemic racism that leads to largely unpunished deaths is a think of the past. Yet it clearly isn’t and it remains embedded in employment. Last month, there was an undercover investigation by the Toronto Star into conditions at a North York industrial bakery where three workers have died.

The real surprise here is that only three workers have died. The working conditions are terrible and the plant basically runs by exploiting (often female) immigrants who have few alternatives to earn a living and aren’t likely to exercise (or even know) their safety rights. The company had been dinged for 191 health and safety violations since 1999. The real number of violations is likely to be much higher given the anemic degree of OHS inspection in most Canadian provinces.

Days after the story dropped, the company pled guilty to various OHS violations and paid a $300,000 fine. This sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t. The quid pro quo for the guilty plea?
As a result of the guilty plea, the Crown withdrew charges against Diaby’s supervisor at the factory, as well as charges related to two other unrelated incidents that occurred at Fiera Foods in October 2015 and June 2016, when workers suffered “critical” arm injuries.
So, basically, pay one fine to avoid prosecution on other charges. I don’t imagine we’ve heard the last of the story about health and safety violations at this bakery. What this tells us is that racism (and sexism) don’t just exist in Canadian employment, but in fact are a structural part of employment. Companies rely upon exploiting vulnerable workers for competitive advantage and will (despite current regulatory efforts) ignore their most basic obligations under law.

I picked this Christy Moore version of the song because I can’t stand Dylan’s voice.

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin',
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station,
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain't the time for
your tears.

William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years,
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him,
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders,
And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain't the time for
your tears.

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage,
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn't even talk to the people at the table,
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table,
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain't the time for
your tears.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel,
To show that all's equal and that the courts are on the
And that the strings in the books ain't pulled and
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught 'em,
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason,
Who just happened to be feelin' that way without warnin'.
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,

And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.

Oh, but you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all
Bury the rag deep in your face, for now's the time for your

-- Bob Banetson

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jason Kenney weighs in on Bill 6

Monday, United Conservative Party leadership candidate Jason Kenney promised to “deep-six” Bill 6 (Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act).

Kenney starts by claiming Bill 6 was an “attack on farmers”. An alternate way to view Bill 6 is an effort to better protect farm workers who have traditionally been highly vulnerable to employer mistreatment. Kenney declines to explain how Bill 6 negatively affects farmers and ranchers and thus constitutes an attack (perhaps because the actual effect is very small).

Kenney then asserts Bill 6 was imposed without consultation. That is not true. The government of Alberta consulted with farmers for years on safety. The Tories concluded education was enough. The NDs drew different conclusion and passed Bill 6. They then engaged in further and lengthy consultations on the substance of various regulations. One can reasonably disagree with the outcome of consultations. One cannot reasonably claim there were no consultations.

But wait, then Kenney says, even if there were consultations, the resulting “Bill 6 is simply another example of government knows best interference.” So I guess no form of consultation would have been good enough and his concerns about them was just a rhetorical strawman?

Anyhow… regulation is not the same thing as interference. Regulation is legitimate government activity designed bring about the public good when, for example, the market fails to do so. Giving workers basic health and safety rights and access to injury compensation is a well established form of regulation in every other industry in the country (and other countries) and in agriculture in most other provinces.

The NDs are then accused of having “no respect, understanding or appreciation for the values and traditions that make Alberta strong”. An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence. There is none provided. Instead, Kenney transitions into platitudes about “hard work”.

He ends with a promise to deep six bill 6. It is not clear what this means but he suggests developing workplace safety rules that “recognize the unique circumstances” of farms and ranches. Since the NDs have not yet rolled out their own farm OHS rules it is unclear how he can know that the NDs’ rules won’t recognize these circumstances (now who is being ideological, Jason?).

He ends by suggesting it is possible to “modernize workplace safety so that everyone wins.” This glosses over the fact that workplace safety regulations are basically about distributing costs among employers and workers. Safer workplaces see employers bear additional costs. Less safe workplaces see costs (in the form of injuries) borne by workers.

Overall, a pretty vague and facile statement.

-- Bob Barnetson

Research: Trans workers and precarity

This summer, I ran across a very interesting article exploring how trans workers face greater precarity of employment. “Gender Transition and Job In/Security: Trans* Un/der/employment Experiences and Labour Anxieties in Post-Fordist Society” explores how the pressure on workers to “use their bodies and working personas to create pleasant interactions and good experiences for customers and clientele” can negatively affect those workers whose bodies fall outside of conventional norms of beauty or normality (p. 168).

In effect, gender normative expression acts as a key determinant of employment. The devaluing of non-gender-conforming workers negatively affects them economically, physically, and psychologically. This is a fascinating article that explores the treatment of trans workers—something that I don't think I have every encountered in any of the HR texts or research that I’ve examined.

This lacuna in HR pedagogy is itself fascinating because not talking about trans workers reinforces (perhaps unintentionally) the social exclusion of trans workers. It reminds me a bit of how HR texts dealt with sexual orientation prior to the Vriend decision (i.e., they ignored sexual orientation). Interestingly, since then, HR texts have largely continued to marginalize issues of sexual orientation by lumping them into a brief discussion of how to avoid complaints of discrimination on the basis of various protected statuses. 

Few books explicitly sexual orientation in the sections they have on diversity. In this context, diversity basically means female workers, workers with disabilities, and workers of colour (although largely exclusive of Indigenous workers). As this article reveals, the silence of HR around the employment experiences of trans workers comes at a great cost to the workers themselves.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 29, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Company Town

A few months back, Mark McCutchen and I published an article examining the presence and (mostly) absence of unions in science fiction. A book that came out between finishing that research and having it published is Company Town by Madeline Ashby (Tor, 2016).

Set on an oil-rig/town near Newfoundland in the near future (where oil is in decline), this cyberpunk novel focuses on Hwa, who is a (female) bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada. Selling sex has been decriminalized in this future and sex workers have developed a hiring hall of sorts, which provides services, including security, pensions, and a client database.

The novel quickly becomes much more complex (leading to an ending that felt somehow rushed and a bit hard to follow). In this novel, the union essentially serves as part of the novel’s setting and has little to no impact on the plot. This fits rather neatly into the typology Mark and I developed about how unions are treated and used in SF. Unusual among SF treatments of unions, though, Ashby frames the union positively.

More broadly the book is largely in keeping with capitalist realism. Capitalist realism is
a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action (Fisher, 2009, p. 16).
It produces a business ontology that privileges corporate business as the model for all other activities, from political governance to family life, to the extent that “the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable” (Ibid, p. 8).

Capitalist realism not only “[claims] to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality,” (Ibid, p. 11) it also insists on everyone’s “‘realistic’ acceptance that capitalism is the only game in town” (Ibid, p. 15) and leaves little room for collective efforts to negotiate limits on exploitation.

To be fair, the United Sex Workers of Canada does make some efforts to regulate the working conditions of its members and thereby buck the system. But it does so within an essentially hypercapitalist system.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the novel (which is good), but rather as an observation about the tendency of SF (as a genre) to situate stories within a capitalist framework and thereby constraining how we think about the future.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Should Edmonton become a sanctuary city for undocumented migrants?

A few weeks back, there was discussion of making Edmonton a sanctuary city for undocumented workers. The gist is that Edmonton would adopt a policy whereby Edmonton’s estimated 25,000 undocumented workers could access government services without being questioned about their immigration status (which triggers fear of deportation).

An interesting question the often comes up is why do foreign nationals stay in Canada after their official residency period has ended. I don't recall any specific research on that in Canada (although I also haven't looked very hard for it) but I did run across this article addressing the motives of undocumented agricultural workers in Idaho.

While most of the farmworkers in this study immigrated to the United States from Mexico for economic reasons, their reasons for staying are more decidedly social:
The reason that respondents have decided to stay is because they have greater social responsibilities, connections and ties to local communities, and a greater sense of belonging, which increases if they have family in the U.S. (p. 43)
The longer undocumented workers remain in the US, the greater the likelihood that they plan to stay in the US. Being married and/or having children also increases the propensity of workers to stay.

These findings ring true to me when tested against my (modest) experience with undocumented workers. Most came in hopes of a better economic life. As their residency permits expired, many stay, both because their families are better off with them working in Alberta and because they have put down roots. Staying without permission is seen as a better choice than returning to their home country. 

In 2016, Migrante Alberta estimated 80% of Calgary temporary foreign workers in low-skill occupations stay (at least for a time) after the expiry of their permits. Most remained employed in some capacity.

One of the challenges of being undocumented is accessing government services (e.g., health care, driver’s license, schooling). In January 2016, Alberta changed its health care policy in order to provide coverage to children born in Canada of undocumented workers, visitors, denied refugee claimants, and migrant workers. That said, fear of revealing undocumented status remains a barrier to accessing services. And a covered child’s parents must still pay for their own medical treatment out of pocket.

This policy leads to heartbreaking and profoundly unfair outcomes. For example, Maria Victoria Venancio was a temporary foreign worker who was paralyzed after being hit cycling to her job in Edmonton in 2012. Unable to work, her work permit was not renewed but she stayed in Canada for medical treatment. In 2015, the former Conservative government denied her health-care coverage. They could have provided her coverage but feared that would open the door to other undocumented workers expecting the same treatment.

Venancio was granted a two-year open work permit in 2015, allowing her to remain in the country legally. This, in turn, meant the province would cover her health-care costs. In 2017, she was granted permanent residency. While Venancio’s case offers hope in the most extreme cases, government policy continues to be a barrier to other undocumented people—most of whom are employed—in accessing basic health care.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 22, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Wichita Lineman

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Wichita Lineman”, originally recorded by Glen Campbell. It was written about a telephone line man that writer Jimmy Webb saw a top a lonely pole while driving through Oklahoma.

Webb combined this striking visual with demands of the job (“”And if it snows that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain) and a backstory (perhaps his own) where the lineman pines for someone (“And I need you more that want you, and I want you for all time”). The result is a haunting portrait of a lonely man in a lonely job.

The song has been covered by a lot of artists (e.g., REM, Guns and Roses, Billy Joel, Stone Temple Pilots). I picked this Cassandra Wilson version because the vocal is clear and jazz interpretation is interesting and moody. You can hear Campbell’s original version. Interestingly, he handles the awkward rising notes at end of each verse better than anyone else.

I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road
Searchin' in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin' in the wire, I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation but it don't look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

[Instrumental Interlude]

And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

[Instrumental to end]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

OHS protections for pregnant and breastfeeding workers

Last week, the Parkland Institute published a blog post written by myself, and two research collaborators. It provided some important context for the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act review. The deadline for submissions to the review is October 16. 

An issue that has received little discussion so far is protective leave for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Yesterday, for example, a worker reported being terminated because she was pregnant because the employer was concerned that the lifting requirement of the job was to great for her. 

The company, now the subject of a human rights complaint, disputes this characterization. But:
The temp agency that hired Deghanifard, Manpower, told the commission they were informed Deghanifard's assignment had ended because her role involved lifting heavy items and in her condition the manager felt it could be harmful to her.
There are approximately 50,000 pregnancies in Alberta each year. Pregnant and nursing women face unique physical, biological, and chemical workplace health hazards. Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act requires workers to refuse unsafe work but, in practice, few workers refuse unsafe work for fear of job loss.

Alberta’s Human Rights Act requires employers to accommodate pregnant and breastfeeding workers to the point of undue hardship. Workers who are not accommodated can complain, but such complaints take months and years to resolve. During this time, workers who are denied accommodation may be without financial support.

Quebec provides pregnant or breastfeeding women who work in conditions that threaten their health or the health of their unborn or breastfeeding children (and who can produce a medical certificate to substantiate these concerns) with access to (1) immediate re-assignment, or (2) protective leave funded by the La Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (i.e., the workers’ compensation board).

Alberta’s current health and safety protections for pregnant and breast-feeding women are inadequate. Providing pregnant and breast-feeding workers with wage-loss benefits should their employer refuse to address workplace hazards will make workplaces safer for this uniquely vulnerable group. The cost of any such leaves can be recouped from the employer via a special workers’ compensation levy.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 15, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Day Sleeper

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Day Sleeper” by REM. The song is about a worker pulling the night shift (perhaps on a long-term basis) and the physical grid that this entails.

As Jason Foster and I noted in Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces, shift work is associated with poorer worker health. The main issue with shift work is its potential to disrupt a worker’s circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms (commonly known as the biological clock) are the daily (24-hour) cycles our body follows to ensure (in humans) high activity during the day and low activity at night.

Sleeping and waking, eating, adrenalin, body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and many other bodily functions are regulated by circadian rhythms. When work occurs outside of that daily rhythm, it places strain on the body as it is forced to alter the cycle.

A second concern is that shift work is associated with behaviour contributing to poorer health, including smoking, poor diet, and increased alcohol consumption. Shift work also disrupts family and social activities. This disruption adds stress and reduces the support that workers can draw upon to manage stress.

Research into shift work has been extensive and shows a wide range of health effects. In the short term, shift work leads to shortened and less restorative sleep and chronic tiredness and lack of alertness, as well as stomach aches, indigestion, and heartburn. Shift work is associated with increased risk of workplace incidents and injury. The risk increases as the number of days on the disruptive shift grows. It also jumps if the disrupted shift lasts longer than eight hours.

Longer-term exposure to shift work is associated with a series of illnesses and conditions. Shift workers report significantly higher rates of burnout, emotional exhaustion, stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychological distress. Shift work increases a worker’s risk of developing diabetes, and some studies have also found a greater risk of heart disease. Some studies have also suggested a link between shift work and pregnancy complications.

Likely the most significant long-term risk of shift work is increased risk of cancer, in particular breast cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that disruptive shift work is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A)—the second most conclusive category in the IARC.

Receiving department, 3 A.M.
Staff cuts have socked up the overage
Directives are posted, no callbacks, complaints
Everywhere is calm

Hong Kong is present, Taipei awakes
All talk of circadian rhythm

I see today with a newsprint fray
My night is colored headache gray

The bull and the bear are marking their territories
They're leading the blind with their international glories

I am the screen, the blinding light
I'm the screen, I work at night

I see today with a newsprint fray
My night is colored headache gray
Don't wake me with so much

I cried the other night
I can't even say why
Fluorescent flat caffeine lights
It's furious balancing

I am the screen, the blinding light
I'm the screen, I work at night

I see today with a newsprint fray
My night is colored headache gray
Don't wake me with so much

The ocean machine is set to 9
I'll squeeze into heaven and Valentine
My bed is pulling me, gravity

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Deep thoughts on sabbatical?

I’m currently on sabbatical. A sabbatical is a leave negotiated by my union to allow workers some time away from day-to-day duties (e.g., teaching, administration) to focus on learning. We often call it research time, but I do research as part of my normal duties. The real boon of a sabbatical is that it gives me time to read around, reflect on what I’ve learned over the past few years, and integrate it into my thinking.

For whatever reason, I do my best thinking while I’m doing something else: cycling, walking, paddling or (at the risk of over sharing) showering. Last week, I finished reading a very frustrating set of social media posts wherein workers were opposing minimum wage increases (a position that benefits employers and disadvantages workers). I always struggle to listen to workers who over-identify with their employers' interests.

So I went down to the river to paddle. Grinding upstream against the current is good exercise but can be monotonous. I looked over at the shore to gauge my progress and saw a pile of old animal bones that one of the gold-panners had stacked up on a boulder. That got me thinking about bones and anthropology and, finally, evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that we can sometimes better understand our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours by recognizing that our minds developed over a long period of time. During this developmental periods, our ancestors typically lived in small nomadic groups. We retain much this “savannah mindset” even thought we now live in radically different circumstances (e.g., industrial societies where capitalism organizes production and distribution).

This approach can, for example, help us understand why the motivational effect of additional wages is nonlinear and decreases after a certain point. But, like any lens, the savannah mind focuses our attention on some things (i.e., determines what is valued) and obscures other things (i.e., what is not valued). So I started to think about how a savannah mindset might explain workers arguing for public policy that is contrary to their collective interests.

To the savannah mind, employers are valuable allies because they give us resources (e.g., wages with which to buy food). Consequently, we want to retain their favor and help them out. Any threat to employers’ interests produces anxiety. That employers pocket (say) two-thirds of the value we produce for them before giving us as little wages as they possible can is not something the savannah mind can grapple with (there was no real surplus value for the powerful to extract in nomadic bands).

Consequently, the idea that there is surplus value that can be distributed to workers as additional wages or retained by employers as profit) does not emotionally resonate with workers. (Just to forestall this critique, I’m not arguing that employers have profits in the amount of twice the wage bill. Simply that there is profit skimmed by employers from the value created by labour.) Similarly, the idea that we belong to a class (i.e., a social group that exists across society) is foreign to the savannah mind. The savannah mind is more likely identify with the group of people we see every day (including our employers).

Conversely, workers view taxes (and the state that levies them) as a threat to their interests because it reduces the resources available to workers. Again, the the savannah mindset struggles to recognize that the state then uses these taxes to provide important things (e.g., schools, clean water regulations, fire departments). These features of our environment appear natural (they have “always existed” for most of us), rather than being the product of a profound (and mostly invisible) level of cooperation among a large number of actors whom we'll never meet.

So, when the (bad) state suggests forcing (good) employers to pay low-wage workers slightly more, this appears (to our savannah minds) to be profoundly threatening to our (group's) interests. Of course there are lots of other reasons why workers might oppose minimum wage increases. workers are subjected to endless employer propaganda and negative religious views on human nature. And, for most workers, minimum wage increases yield limited personal value.

But it struck me that employer lobbyists (intentionally or not) are tapping into a bit of a psychological hot button for most workers when they complain about the (largely imaginary) negative effect rising minimum wages. So what does that means for proponents of public policy initiatives like increasing minimum wages? I don’t know off-hand—I got distracted by an eagle sitting in a tree above my kayak. Maybe the next time I hit the water, I’ll have another brainwave.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 8, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: The Rising

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen. The Rising is a song about the firefighters who died during 9/11 in the twin towers.

I have really mixed feelings about the song: it’s evocative and valorizes obvious brave workers. Yet everything around 9/11 has become very jingoistic and unreflective.

In the end, I think The Rising offers a reasonably mature perspective on the tragedy of the day. It focuses on the pain and the sacrifices of regular workers and their families and avoiding the ugly “angry American” views that get so much air time around the anniversary.

In his autobiography, Springsteen writes about he inspiration for the song:
Of the many tragic images of that day, the picture I couldn’t let go of was of the emergency workers going up the stairs ad other rushed down to safety. The sense of duty, the courage, ascending into… what? The religious image of ascension, the crossing of the line between this world, the world of blood, work, family, your children, the breath in your lungs, the ground beneath your feet, all that is life and… the next flooded my imagination.
I picked a Grammy performance of the song. There isn’t (as far as I can tell) an official video of the song and this performance (muddy audio and pitchy vocals) really seems to capture the un-self-conscious nature of Springsteen performances: he sings and it is honest. Sting's version is also worth a listen.

Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me

Lost track of how far I've gone
How far I've gone, how high I've climbed
On my back's a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile line

Come on up for the rising
Com on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
Wearin' the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

Spirits above and behind me
Faces gone, black eyes burnin' bright
May their precious blood forever bind me
Lord as I stand before your fiery light

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There's holy pictures of our children
Dancin' in a sky filled with light

May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin' on the end of the line

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life)

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book: Unions in Court

This summer I tried to actually take my vacation and not just keep working. For the most part, I was successful. I did, however, take time to read Unions in court: Organized labour and the Charter ofRights and Freedoms (2017, UBC Press) by Larry Savage and Charles Smith.

Great read! The book traces the labour movement’s come hither-go away relationship with Charter litigation over the past 30 years. This historical analysis of unions' relationships with the courts provides a nicely nuanced explanation for why unions have, over time, come to embrace Charter litigation. In short
…[W]e have argued that while unions were initially hostile to constitutionalized labour rights for fear of how they might be interpreted by an unsympathetic judiciary, significant sections of organized labour ultimately retreated back to the legal arena, shed their judicial phobia, and wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of “worker rights and human rights” as a response to the growing tide of neoliberalism and the crisis in social democratic electorialism in the 1990s. (pp. 208-209).
The authors then go on to examine the pros and cons of this dynamic, continuing the long-running debate (often between Savage and Professor Roy Adams) around the ultimate utility of framing “worker rights and human rights”. The book also does a nice job of outlining the key wins and losses experienced by the labour movement.

Students in IDRL 309/LGST 310 might want to pick this book up!

-- Bob Barnetson