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