Friday, October 17, 2014

Some Friday Springsteen: Factory

Bruce Springsteen's song Factory is one of the more moving descriptions of the working class and, as I grind through creating 100 multiple-choice questions, is a pleasant diversion.

Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
It's the working, the working, just the working life

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
I see my daddy walking towards them factory gates in the rain
Factory takes his hearing, but he understands
He's a working, a working, just a working man

End of the day, factory whistle cries
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes
And you just better believe, boy, somebody's gonna get hurt tonight
It's the working, the working, it's the working life
Cause it's the working, the working, just the working life

If you'll pardon the pun, it strikes me we need a course on music, social justice and the workplace.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Workplace injury on TV: Reaaally mad men

You don’t often see occupational injuries represented on TV shows. I’m currently watching Mad Men and last week we ran across this clip. The context is that the advertising firm landed a John Deere contract and it came with a lawn tractor. Subsequently, there was an office party.

I don’t want to make too much of this (since it is one TV show and the scene was designed for comedic value), but a bit of analysis is worthwhile.

First, the proximate cause is the secretary drinking and driving. The root cause was (1) an unsecured lawn mower in the office and (2) the availability of booze in the workplace. Later episodes show us that neither the person who brought the mower into the office nor the fellow who first started driving it were disciplined. As far as I know (two episodes on) the secretary has disappeared (and I presume been fired). And there has been no let-up in the workplace boozing!

Interesting how it is a woman who loses control of the mower (my wife cried “sexist”). I’m inclined to think she is right, particularly given the role of women in the series. Perhaps the choice of driver reflects that it had to be a bit character whose disappearance wouldn’t affect any plot lines. But that too tells us something about the role of women in this particular production (in the minority and, for the most part, in the plot periphery).

The victim (a new manager from the UK) elicited little sympathy (in addition to the joke above, his UK colleagues were aghast that he would “never golf again”). Again, as a one-off comedy bit, we shouldn’t read too much into this. Yet the victim was portrayed as somewhat deserving his fate (he was a real twit) and, now injured, is of little use to his company. It is interesting how these kinds of narratives (that swirl around workplace injury) find expression even in TV shows out to get a cheap laugh.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Some clarity would be helpful in Alberta's farm safety debate

The Journal of Agromedicine just released an article entitled “Safety and Injury Characteristics of Youth Farmworkers in North Carolina: A Pilot Study.” The researchers interviewed 87 youth farm workers (ages 10-17). Five (5.7%) had received pesticide use training in the past year. Over half reported a musculoskeletal injury (54.0%), a traumatic injury (60.9%), or a dermatological injury (72.4%) in the last year. Six of the injuries led to medical treatment, and 10 resulted in missed school or work. 

These findings while disturbing, are hardly surprising: farm work is dangerous, there is little attention to safety, and injury (and death) is commonplace. The authors note that research suggests changes in policy are warranted. Despite the compelling evidence that farm work is dangerous and current education-based efforts are not effective, Alberta premier Jim Prentice indicated last week that he won’t be extending the ambit of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include agricultural workers.

He wants more research and debate—because 10 years of the government looking into the matter has somehow been insufficient. Interestingly, in February, the government of then-Premier Alison Redford suspended operation of the Alberta Agriculture Injury Prevention Working Group—exactly the kind of group that would provide the research Prentice now wants. It is very hard not to be cynical about the government’s handling of the farm safety file—it looks a lot like they are sacrificing the safety of farm workers in order for electoral support in rural Alberta.

But, if Prentice plans to actually have a debate, some conceptual clarity would really help. For example, Prentice declared that he would not be extending OHS rules to so-called family farms, but he might consider doing so for large, more corporate-style farming operations. Unfortunately, there is no widely accepted definition of what is a family farm or a corporate-style farming operation. StatCan’s 2011 Agricultural Census tells us that, of the 42,234 farms in Alberta in 2011, only 771 are non-family corporations. But, there are also 6821 family-owned corporations—but since these are family owned, it is not clear if they in or out in Prentice’s view.

Table 1. Farm corporate structure, 1986-2011

Sole proprietor
Partnership w agreement
Partnership w/o agreement
Family Corporation
Non-family corporation

Further complicating things is that farm corporate structures do not neatly map onto whether or not a farm employs waged labour. (I’m currently waiting for some data on which farms use waged labour.) This matters because the real issue here is the rights of farm workers, not who owns the farm.

My guess is that what Prentice is trying to suggest is that there some farms that operate more like businesses (with farmers acting as supervisors of employees) and some farms where the farmer is the labour. There was an article back in 1986 (P. Ghorayshi, “The Identification of Capitalist Farms: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations,” Sociologica Ruralis, vol 26, no 2 (1986): 146-159) that suggested we differentiate capitalistic farms (i.e., farms exhibiting increasing capitalization, size and specialization) from capitalist farms (i.e., farms employing waged labour with farmers increasingly performing supervisor or managerial tasks).

If one accepts the notion that some farms ought to be subject to OHS and some shouldn’t, a clear differentiation based primarily on the presence of employees creates greater clarity of who is in and who is out than the current loose use of terms like “family farm” and “corporate farm” (or large farm and small farm).

This, of course, assumes that the current lack of clarity in the debate is an oversight (despite 10 years of research…) instead of an intentional obfuscation designed to inject further delay in extending basic health and safety rights to workers in one of Canada’s most dangerous occupations. There is that cynicism rearing its ugly head once again.

-- Bob Barnetson

Labour conditions and the iPhone

A new article entitled "The politics of global production: Apple, Foxconn and China's new working class" has appeared in the Asia-Pacific journal examining labour relations that underlie the production of the iPhone. Its abstract reads:
Apple's commercial triumph rests in part on the outsourcing of its consumer electronics production to Asia. Drawing on extensive fieldwork at China's leading exporter—the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn—the power dynamics of the buyer-driven supply chain are analysed in the context of the national terrains that mediate or even accentuate global pressures. Power asymmetries assure the dominance of Apple in price setting and the timing of product delivery, resulting in intense pressures and illegal overtime for workers. Responding to the high-pressure production regime, the young generation of Chinese rural migrant workers engages in a crescendo of individual and collective struggles to define their rights and defend their dignity in the face of combined corporate and state power.
-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Medical repatriation of migrant farm workers in Ontario

The Canadian Medical Association Journal has published an article examining medical repatriation of migrant farm workers in Ontario. The upshot is this:
During 2001–2011, 787 repatriations occurred among 170 315 migrant farm workers arriving in Ontario (4.62 repatriations per 1000 workers). More than two-thirds of repatriated workers were aged 30–49 years. Migrant farm workers were most frequently repatriated for medical or surgical reasons (41.3%) and external injuries including poisoning (25.5%).
Medical repatriations is one of the ugly undersides of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP)—get hurt on the job and your employer may put you on a plane home.

-- Bob Barnetson

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