Thursday, September 18, 2014

Voluntary codes of conduct in supply chains

The Journal of Cleaner Production (yes, that’s a thing!) has just published an interesting article entitled “Do codes of conduct improve worker rights in supply chains? A study of Fair Wear Foundation”. Factories and wholesalers often adopt voluntary codes of conduct in factories in the developing world when faced with allegations of inhumane working conditions (e.g., child labour, deaths due to factory fires or collapses). The question is whether these code have any real impact. This article suggests the answer is “not really”.

Here is the abstract:
The rise of private regulation of sustainability in global production networks has led to intensive debates about the impact of this regulation at the point of production. Yet, few empirical studies have systematically examined this impact in practice. Based on multiple factory audits of 43 garment factories conducted by the multi-stakeholder initiative Fair Wear Foundation, we show that codes of conduct improve (although marginally) worker rights on an overall level but that few significant results are found for specific worker rights. 
Our findings also lend support to the widespread argument that codes have uneven impact. Furthermore, we show that even rigorous multi-stakeholder factory audits seldom are able to identify process rights violations (such as those affecting freedom of association and discrimination), and that auditing is thus is more fundamentally flawed than assumed in previous research. Given companies’ extensive investments in private regulation of worker rights, the findings have important implications for both scholars and managers.
-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, September 8, 2014

Precarious employment in southern Ontario

Volume 22 of Just Labour has been published and it contains a series of articles examining [poverty and employment precarity in southern Ontario. Sadly, this will be the last issue of Just Labour produced.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, September 1, 2014

Hw the Conservatives expanded the temporary worker pipeline

The Canadian Labour Congress has explained the temporary foreign worker program in this handy little comic. A very clear explanation of the history and politics of this issue. Interestingly, they dropped the word "foreign" from the title. Happy labour day!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Farms, injuries and kids

The issue of farm safety has come around a few times this summer. Last week a 39-year-old man died after falling seven metres while demolishing a barn on a farm. OHS stopped its investigation because it has no jurisdiction on farms—even if the worker was not doing a task most of us would consider farm work.

Because Alberta excludes so-called farmworkers from virtually all of its labour laws, there will never be an investigation of his death (since it wasn’t otherwise criminal) and the worker’s dependants will likely have no compensation for his death—unless they sue the farmer, who will then likely declare bankruptcy.

Earlier this summer, a U of C study suggested that the blanket exemption of farmworkers from basic workplace rights (e.g., right to refuse unsafe work, child labour laws, workers’ compensation, right to form a union) likely violated the Charter of Rights of Freedoms. Yet candidates for the leadership of the Tory Party (i.e., the next premier) refuse to endorse providing basic rights for these workers. They couch this Little House on the Prairie notions of farms (which today average 1100 acres…) but basically they the PC Party is in the electoral soup and are pandering to the rural vote.

A few weeks back, an interesting case popped up in Saskatchewan that usefully illustrates the issue and its dynamics. A farm family was allowing its own 8- and 10-year-old children to work in a chicken processing operation they ran on their farm (the kids had been working in it since they were 2). They also employed neighbour’s children who were under 16. They were ordered to cease employing children necause that violated health and safety laws.

Did they comply with the child labour laws? Hell no, they bitched to the media. This caused the usual brouhaha, with commentators attesting to the value of hard work and the necessity of children working to keep farms afloat.

While these assertions are likely heartfelt, that doesn’t mean they are valid or the most important considerations. Consider these two points:
  1. Having children working in what is effectively a small meatpacking plant exposes them to physical hazards (e.g., sharps, repetitive motions) and biological hazards (e.g., bacteria), hazards that may pose a greater threat of children (due to their physical and cognitive immaturity). Consequently, the state has quite correctly deemed these tasks inappropriate for workers under age 16 to perform.
  2. Allowing children to perform such dangerous jobs is essentially sacrificing the health of children in order to keep economically unviable business afloat. That is pretty blunt, but if a farm can’t make it without the (often unpaid) work of 2- or 8- or 10-year-olds, isn’t it better to let the farm go belly up?
Predictably, the government assessed the impact of actually upholding child labour laws on farms, crapped its electoral pants (figuratively, I assume) and reversed its order for the farmers' own children ("go to it kids!"). I wonder how the Minister involved will feel the next time a kid dies doing dangerous work on a farm because provincial inspectors have been told to turn a blind eye?


-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, July 14, 2014

Latest Canadian Taxpayer Fed attack on EI flawed

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) is once again harping on reforming Employment Insurance. And by reform they mean changes that will both reduce employer premiums and pressure workers to take any crappy job that is offered. This latest run at EI reform (it started last autumn) is (I assume) aimed at providing employers with cheap labour now that the feds have gotten cold feet on temporary foreign workers (TFWs).

Kevin Lacey the CTF’s Atlantic Director has been leading the latest charge and the gist of his op-ed from the Medicine Hat News is:
  • EI pays people not to work. EI actually provides (lousy) compensation when someone can’t find employment. But it is easier to advocate for reform if you hint that EI recipient are lazy.
  • There are lots of jobs because employers have to bring in TFWs. Perhaps, but what kind of jobs are employers offering? That EI recipients won’t take these jobs may well suggests the wages and working conditions on offer are the pits.
Lacey uses two examples (New Brunswick companies hiring TFWs and moving to the US respectively) to bolster his claim. There is, however, no analysis of the quality of the jobs on offer, the skill set required and locally available, or whether the employers are even telling the truth about their situation. As we’ve seen over the past six months, employers happily lie to the feds to jump the hoops necessary to get TFWs. The CTF’s prescription is:
  1. Reduce EI access. This will pressurize workers to take whatever (if any!) jobs and terms are offered to put food on the table, driving down wages.
  2. Increase immigration: “Be gone TFW scourge!” cries the CTF But bring on the permanent immigrants. But wait, won’t this just increase unemployment and further drive down wages by flooding the labour market…?
  3. Pay higher wages. Oh yeah, the CTF says employers should pay more for service jobs. But given (1) and (2) above, this is unlikely to happen.
The ever-receptive Calgary Herald has jumped on the bandwagon, drinking the CTF kool-aid about differential EI benefits. Editorialist Richard Marsden parrots:
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation reports that we’re the only country in the world to set employment insurance payments based on where an applicant lives. The result has been perverse, leading to a system where those who live in high areas of unemployment — and thus are more likely to lose their job and less likely to find a new one — receive higher benefits for working fewer weeks than other Canadians.
This criticism makes zero sense. The purpose of EI is to provide a financial backstop if you lose your job. If you live in an area where job tenure is shorter, it makes sense to reduce the qualifying period. And, if you live in an area where it is harder to find a job, its makes sense that your EI benefits last longer. But never mind good sense and reason. Let’s return to Marsden’s prescription:
Expressed another way, 58.3 per cent of Newfoundlanders collected EI at least once a year between 2008 and 2010, compared to 12.7 per cent of Albertans, according to the taxpayers federation. … Cutting indefensible EI payments would help fill jobs that are going begging, reduce the drain on EI and produce higher incomes, which would stimulate the economy and increase the amount of money governments collect.
Hmmm. So you cut EI to Newfoundland and what happens? Well, folks some will stay in Newfoundland and raise their kids in poverty because they have these silly attachments to community and family. In the CTF’s and Marsden’s prescription, it’s cool to let these kids go hungry if their parents won’t pull up stakes and move to Alberta.

For those Newfoundlanders who will move to Alberta, they will then flood the labour market, depressing wages here. In effect, we’d be trading international migrants for interprovincial migrants. (For the record, I’ve no issue with inter-provincial migrants).

The only group that wins here is employers. Their EI premiums go down. And a looser labour market (i.e., more workers fighting for the same number of jobs) allows employers to reduce wages and make jobs crappier. I wonder if the majority of Canadian taxpayers (whom the CTF purports to represent but actually doesn’t) would really like lower wages and crappier working conditions?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 4, 2014

Child labour on farms

As I get ready for a summer of research and vacation, a friend pointed out this bit by Jon Stewart about child labour in US agriculture:



Sadly, Alberta allows employers to treat children on local farms in broadly the same way because there are no rules about safety or child labour. Not every farmer behaves this atrociously, but certainly some do.

-- Bob Barnetson