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 forthe 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 inSaskatchewan 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 effective 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

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

More on farm safety

There were two recent video clips on farm safety in Alberta. On May 16, Alberta Primetime did a short piece on the continued exclusion of farm workers from employment laws. Again discussion swirled around family farms versus corporate farms and the parameters of regulation. There was the usual shuck and jive about all farms are family farms even though some are large forms or corporate farms. Blah, blah, blah.

An interesting narrative that may be developing here is that there are a small number of bad actors who refuse to voluntarily comply with OHS rules. I'm not sure if that is true, but it does create an opportunity for activists to drive a wedge between producers--perhaps breaking down the historically broad opposition to regulation. There was also an interesting discussion of employer tactics re: bullying migrants workers.

Subsequently, there was a longer discussion about the constitutionality of the broad statutory exclusion of farm workers on Calgary Now.







The discussion included a law prof, a union rep and an injured farm worker. The hosting is a bit uneven but the discussion of the constitutional problems with the exclusions and the demands of farm workers (e.g., drinking water, washroom facilities) was quite fascinating.

-- Bob Barnetson


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Another bad idea from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

The Edmonton Journal has published a new op-ed piece by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation about public-sector labour relations. At present, public-sector workers are precluded from striking. When collective bargaining reaches impasse, a neutral third party determines the settlement, typically by looking at comparable settlements.

In the CTF’s op-ed, Derek Fildebrandt argues that the government should amend the legislation governing public-sector labour relations to compel arbitrators to:
…to reflect the fiscal realities of the province. 
Arbiters in the private sector generally do not award raises when a company is hemorrhaging money or is unprofitable. Similarly, arbiters should be required to reduce pay or at least hold the line when the current revenue and spending framework is leading to a growing debt.
The problem with Fildebrandt’s prescription is that it obfuscates a fundamental difference between public- and private-sector employers.

In the private-sector, an employer’s ability to pay is (more or less) determined by revenue, something that is largely outside of the employer’s control. In short, ability to pay is a real and significant constraint on a final settlement in the private-sector.

The public-sector is different. In the public-sector, the employer’s ability to pay is determined by the employer when the employer decided what level of taxes to levy on individuals and corporations. In short, ability to pay is within the control of the employer.

Arbitrators are loathed to apply “ability to pay” in public-sector arbitrations because politicians have an electoral incentive to minimize taxes and maximize programming. They have their cake and eat it too only if they underpay their workers.

That is to say, accepting ability to pay arguments in the public sector would allow politicians to force public-sector workers to subsidize public services via substandard wages.

(Yes, yes, no one wants to pay more taxes. But, if taxpayers want adequate public-sector services, it stands to reason they have to pay for them, no?)

Externalizing costs via mandating substandard public-sector wages likely sounds good if your interest is minimizing corporate taxes. But, to fair-minded people, mandating public-sector arbitrators consider a government’s ability to pay (which is, in truth, unlimited) is simply another way to screw public-sector workers.

Attacking public-sector workers has (happily) proven to be political suicide for the Tories. No party with ambitions to actually form government is likely to adopt this strategem.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, June 9, 2014

Restaurants Canada campaign for cheap workers

Restaurants Canada, an association representing restaurateurs, has recently begun distributing this handbill in places like Tim Horton’s. The gist is that the moratorium on temporary foreign worker (TFW) permits in the food services sector is problematic for restaurants and restaurateurs want the ban lifted.

The handbill advances two specious arguments.

The first is that TFWs can only be hired when restaurateurs have exhausted efforts to recruit Canadians. The media coverage that lead to the moratorium on TFWs in the food services sectors demonstrates this claim is false. The current system has essentially non-existent oversight (which is the fault of the federal government) and TFWs are hired in the restaurant industry when there are Canadians willing an able to do the work (which is the fault of profit-maximizing employers).

The second is that TFWs are necessary to staff restaurants; in their absence, some restaurants would have to reduce their hours or close their doors. By avoiding this outcome, TFWs help protect Canadian jobs. 

This statement is trickier to untangle.

The assertion that “no TFWs means few hours and closures” is not necessarily true. Employers can almost always induce workers who are sitting on the sidelines (in a specific jurisdiction or elsewhere) to join the labour force if the wages and working conditions are right. A look at unemployment among marginalized groups (aboriginal, disabled) and other provinces suggests that lots of potential workers available. But, higher wages and better working conditions raise labour costs which reduces restaurateurs' profits.

It **may** be that some restaurants will end up going out of business without access to TFWs. But if a business can’t afford to pay its suppliers (including its workers) a competitive price, isn’t this a sign that the business is not viable? And won’t any displaced Canadian workers then find employment at another restaurant (which will pick up the customers from the closed business)?

This self-correct dynamic (which is called "the free market at work") highlights the devious nature of the assertion that “TFWs protect Canadian jobs”. On the surface, TFWs do protect specific Canadian jobs by allowing otherwise unprofitable businesses to suppress wages via access to additional workers.

But people change jobs all the time. The real question is whether a moratorium on TFWs will result in long-term job losses among Canadians.

Eliminating employer access to TFWs may well cause a period of disruption, with some Canadian workers changing jobs. But, if restaurant really do hire TFWs only when there are no Canadians, then all of these displaced Canadians should be able to find work. And, when this period of disruption settles out, both wages and working for Canadians are likely to be better (because scarce employees have more bargaining power).

What this campaign is really about is minimizing labour costs for restaurateurs by giving employers access to a larger labour pool.

To be fair, continued access to TFWs in the food service industry mean (1) restaurants are open longer hours and (2) the price of a meal will be lower.

But, the framing of this campaign doesn’t lead to a meaningful debate about the relative merits of migrant workers, low wages, cheap food and 24-hour cheeseburgers.

Instead it seeks to raise anxiety about the (false) spectre of fewer (lousy) jobs and pressurize the government to allow employers access to low-cost workers.


-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, June 2, 2014

Protect AU from the call centre?

The Canadian Union of Public Employees has launched a new website for those who wish to express their dismay with Athabasca University's efforts to displace the tutor model of instruction with a call centre. You can visit Protect Learning at AU by click the link and filling out a digital postcard.

-- Bob Barnetson