Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Trading worker health for profit in the service sector

One week before Christmas, two employees at a pair of Edmonton convenience stores were killed on the job by a group of gunmen. Although workplace violence resulting in death is a relatively uncommon event in Alberta, it is a known hazard that employers are expected to control to the degree "reasonably practicable". 

Unfortunately, service-sector employers (whose workers tend to be particularly vulnerable to workplace violence because they often handle cash alone late at night) have been reluctant to take action that would significantly reduce the hazard posed by workplace violence (such as physically separating employees from customers).

Alberta’s very minimal health and safety rules around working alone, for example, were developed after a 25-year-old woman was beaten to death in a Calgary Subway in 2000. My colleague Jason Foster was involved in the Conservative government’s consultation that led to these rules and notes that the government was reluctant to agree to any health and safety regulations that imposed costs on the employer.

This dynamic of governments acceding to employer demands to minimize the cost of regulation is widely evident. Consider the long-running issue of gas-and-dash deaths. On September 15, 2012, Toronto gas-station attendant Jayesh Prajapati, 44, was killed trying to stop a customer who drove off without paying for his $112 fill up. Prajapati’s widow claimed that her late husband’s employer has previously required him to pay for gas-and-dash losses and that this is why he tried to stop the driver.

While docking workers’ pay for customer theft is illegal in Ontario, the practice is commonplace in gas stations and restaurants. Only months before Prajapati’s death, Deborah Pommer was told by a gas station operator in south-western Ontario that she’d have to cover a $65 gas-and-dash or she be fired. With only five weeks on the job, this was the second gas-and-dash Pommer was expected to pay.

“I felt very manipulated,” said Pommer. “I felt fearful. I was shaking. To be put on the spot like that it’s very difficult especially when it’s your livelihood. You rely on your income. I felt really intimidated.” Pommer quit and filed a complaint with the provincial labour standards branch.

That employers can routinely (and illegally) force workers to cover the cost of customer theft reflects that workplace laws are often unenforced. Workers are reluctant to complain about violations for fear of employer retribution, says Deena Ladd of the Worker’s Action Centre. “People are desperate to hold on to jobs. Many workers only make complaints to the ministry after they’ve lost their job because if they make a complaint while they’re in the job, there’s no way to do it anonymously.”

In 2007, British Columbia passed a law requiring motorists to pay before pumping, following the 2005 death of Grant De Patie in Maple Ridge, BC. De Patie was dragged several kilometres under a vehicle after he tried to stop a $12.30 gas-and-dash. De Patrie’s parents fought hard for this law, which eliminates the circumstances giving rise to the workplace hazard. 

A Calgary gas station employee was killed in June when she tied to stop a dash-and-gas. Although the government indicated it was looking into the matter, no concrete action (such as requiring pre-payment) has materialized. In other jurisdictions, employers have declined to implement pre-payment technology unless required to by law. According to Dave Bryans, CEO Ontario Convenience Stores Association, many Ontario stations can’t afford pre-pay technology. He also notes that 40 percent of customers pay inside the store and, in BC, the pre-pay requirement has resulted in a 25 percent drop in in-store business.

The on-going debate about pay-before-you-pump laws highlights how the law mediates conflicting demands between workers, who prioritize safety, and employers, who are generally most concerned about profitability. These examples also reveal that the way in which laws are enforced affects the degree of protection they provide to workers. The reluctance of governments to impose new regulations or enforce existing ones also suggests the state takes action on safety issues only when, and to the degree that, it must.

Whether the shocking death of two convenience store clerks will motivate Alberta’s government to require employers to make (likely costly) physical changes to these operations remains to be seen.

-- Bob Barnetson

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