Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bad employers? We don't see no bad employers.

In 2010, the Auditor General identified that the government of Alberta was (among other things) not doing a good job of identifying high-risk employers and made some recommendations (which the government has still not addressed). This is an issue because a part of Alberta’s largely complaint-driven enforcement strategy is based upon focusing inspection activity on high-risk employers. The Alberta Federation of Labor tried for years to get this list of unsafe employers but has given up.

Today, CBC is reporting that Alberta is still refusing to release its list of unsafe employers despite the information and privacy commissioner’s office suggesting it has no basis for such a refusal. This is rather odd because Alberta does maintain a publicly searchable database of employer injury records. Back in 2010, then-Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk touted the database as an example of Alberta leading the nation in safety record disclosures:
Mr. Lukaszuk: Mr. Speaker, if you want to talk about transparency, you would be glad to know that Alberta is the only province in Canada if not in North America that actually has a full online, free-of-charge disclosure of the occupational health and safety record of virtually every employer in this province. So get on the computer, look up your employers, and you’ll see exactly what their safety track records are. Only in Alberta. Alberta Hansard, March 9, 2011, p. 267
Unfortunately, it is not realistically possible to do compare and contrast search of employers using this database to identify which employers a worker might not want to work for. This seems contrary to basic (neoliberal) principle that workers are responsible for their own safety by choosing safe employers:
Mr. Lukaszuk: Thank you again, Mr. Speaker. Well, I am glad that this member brought this question forward because one of the reviews that I’m doing right now is whether I am able to release not only the records of employers who are underperformers but all employers in Alberta so that Albertans can take a look and see how their place of employment is faring and whether they choose to work or not work for that particular employer. Alberta Hansard, April 15, 2010, p. 786.
Three years later, apparently the government has decided that…“release of the information would harm business interests.” 

Yeah, because protecting employers from the consequences of their own bad behaviour is the compelling public interest here… . Why is it that Alberta publishes a list of employers who rip off workers, but not a list of employers who repeatedly maim and kill workers? 

CBC applied for a review by the office of the information and privacy commission. Even before the review started, the government indicated it would not be changing its position. CBC has now applied for an inquiry which might (eventually) force the government to disclose this list.

It is useful to have some context around freedom of information in Alberta. The idea is that the public should have access to their own personal information held by the government as well as general information collected by the government (subject to certain exclusions). This kind of access creates transparency and accountability.

My experience has been that Alberta’s government goes to great lengths to avoid releasing information that will make its policies or its corporate buddies look. Here are some examples of stuff I have seen in labour relations over in the past 10 years:
  1. Data about controversial matters being burned to CDs/DVDs (later labeled “ABBA tunes” and “Mom’s recipes”) rather than stored on government servers in order to hide this data from FOIP requests (because the files won’t show up in a records search of the servers).
  2. Being asked to destroy materials in anticipation that a FOIP request would be coming in. "Sorry, no records were found!"
  3. Endless delay in releasing publicly funded survey data (via appeals) only to have the (relatively innocuous) data released on the government website years later with no fanfare and buried deeply in the site.
  4. Outrageous fees associated with requests. I was quoted $10,000 to get a count of child labour complaints in Alberta. And $236,000 for records around injury rates. When I got the injury-rate stuff (after scaling down the request to only $4000), virtually the entire three-inch pile was redacted.
Based on chats with other researchers, these examples are hardly unique and this behaviour is not limited to just the field of labour relations.

The government's reluctance to release this data is likely based on this chain of reasoning:

  1. If we identify who the repeat offenders are, people will ask what we've been doing about them and how effective that has been. 
  2. Since we've been doing nothing that has proven effective, we'll look bad. 
  3. Someone will also compare the list of bad actors to the list of employers who hold "Certificates of Recognition" for their injury prevention efforts (and get workers' compensation premium rebates).
  4. This will make clear that the whole partners in injury reduction program is basically smoke and mirrors.

The conservative government clearly has a culture of hiding information from the public to benefit itself and its friends. That this endangers the health and safety of workers is apparently a price the government is satisfied to pay.

-- Bob Barnetson


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. The PIR Program is as flawed as the smoke and mirrors outfit that runs it - the WCB who is accountable to no one. Even the math used for this program is convoluted and adds up to a useless paper exchange.

    It will be interesting to see how the implementation of the fine system will go with OHS. In talking to their own people they are feeling some trepidation about how and when the right to fine can be exercised and if they do not chose correctly - what are the career repercussions?

    I rarely like much of what the CBC does but in this instance - I am glad they are championing the workers in forcing this information into the open!!

  3. Deleted spam.

    Thanks Rina. Yes, will be interesting to see what shakes out in the wash here and compare the "bad employer list" to those who have a COR as well as the rate of enforcement and prosecution against bad employers.