Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Each according to their needs..."

One of the challenges that a bargaining team faces at the table is convincing the other side to accept a proposal. While it is always possible to threaten a work stoppage (i.e., a strike or a lockout) to force a proposal on the other side, it is more common to engage in log rolling (exchanging agreement on your X for agreement on their Y).

Sometimes, it is possible to simply convince the other side that a proposal is their own best interest. For example, employers might seek wage freezes by arguing that the organization cannot afford a cost-of-living increase. The implicit threat here is that a cost-of-living adjustment will come with job losses due to a lack of funds.

Athabasca University’s current negotiation with its faculty association is a good example of this. The employer has proposed a two-year agreement with no cost of living increases. This is consistent with the political direction set by the government and that other public-sector unions have accepted.

The difficulty that the union side is going to have with this proposal is two-fold: (1) taking a zero means salaries fall behind inflation (i.e., buying power is reduced) and (2) there is no good evidence that university is in serious financial distress.

The recent salary disclosure (this data is from 2017) suggests that there is lots of money for administrators. The ten-best paid administrators who are outside of the bargaining unit raked in a total of $3.3m in overall compensation.



The president’s salary was particularly interesting. In 2017, he received $450,468.94 in pay alone. His August 2016 contract (which is posted online) indicates his starting salary was to be $337,000 plus up to a 15% bonus (so a maximum of 387,550).

This $62,918 increase over one year suggests he got a ~16% raise his first year on the job. The rest of us had to fight to receive a 2% increase.

The university’s financial statements also reveal that it has recorded surpluses every year since 2013 (excepting a tiny deficit in 2016). The university’s rhetoric that surpluses reflect “one-time savings that cannot be relied upon” sits awkwardly with this long-term trend. And recent enrolment data is showing a 15% spike in undergraduate registrations (more than half of AU's funding comes from registrations so this is a big cash-flow increase).

Once bargaining gets down to brass tacks in the coming months, it will be interesting to see how committed Athabasca University’s bargaining team is to getting two zeroes and the strategies it uses to achieve those.

Given the facts the university is stuck with, I’d say that persuasion is unlikely to be effective. This leaves log rolling, threats of a lockout, or abandoning its proposed wage freeze altogether.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 13, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Private Dancer


This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Private Dancer” by Tina Turner. The song is sung from the perspective of a worker in the sex industry. We don’t normally think about sex workers as workers—although they are.

A new course under development at Athabasca is hoping to change that. LBST 4XX (Sex work and sex workers) will examine the sex industry and the experiences of those work in it. While sex work represents one of the most extreme forms of employment, it shares many features with other forms of employment. Specifically, it is a relationship of power wherein one party appropriate the surplus value generated by the other, often employing coercion and externalizing costs in gendered and racialized ways.

The course offers an overview of the sex industry in a variety of theoretical and material contexts, as well as an in-depth focus on prostitution in the Canadian context. Taking “the prostitute” as the stereotype that drives public sex work policy, this course examines the myriad images of and circumstances in which sex work occurs. In addition to reading key texts by scholarly experts on the sex industry, we will hear from sex workers themselves about their jobs, working conditions, and the power dynamics of sex work.

Students will learn to analyze sex work as work through a variety of theoretical lenses, and to identify similarities and differences in legal and policy positions that respond to feminism, queer theory, critiques of neoliberalism and globalization, postcolonial praxis, and progressive legalism. This includes examining how labour policies, such as occupational health and safety policies, affect sex workers, the roles of clients and third parties in the sex industry, and sex workers’ labour organizing.

I’m hopeful this course will open in late 2019.

Well, the men come in these places
And the men are all the same
You don't look at their faces
And you don't ask their names
You don't think of them as human
You don't think of them at all
You keep your mind on the money
Keeping your eyes on the wall

I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do

I want to make a million dollars
I want to live out by the sea
Have a husband and some children
Yeah, I guess I want a family
All the men come in these places
And the men are all the same
You don't look at their faces
And you don't ask their names

I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
Just a private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do

Deutschmarks or dollars
American Express will do nicely, thank you
Let me loosen up your collar
Tell me, do you want to see me do the shimmy again?

I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
Do what you want me to do
Just a private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do

All the men come in these places
And the men are all the same
You don't look at their faces
And you don't ask their names
You don't think of them as human
You don't think of them at all
You keep your mind on the money
Keeping your eyes on the wall

I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do

I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money
I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money
I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money
Just a private dancer, a dancer for money

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

New Alberta farm safety rules an improvement but leave workers vulnerable

Note: This post originally appeared on the Parkland Institute blog.

Last week, Alberta announced new Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) rules affecting 14,000 paid farm workers on 4200 Alberta farms and ranches. These rules represent a significant win for farm workers by setting out minimum safety requirements. The announcement of new OHS rules concludes at two-and-half-year struggle over the degree to which Alberta’s employment laws should apply to paid, non-family workers on farms and ranches.

The Notley government’s 2015 extension of basic workplace rights to farm workers corrected perhaps the most egregiously wrongful employment policy of Alberta’s former conservative governments. Alberta’s long-standing refusal to allow this very vulnerable group of workers to, for example, know about the hazards in their workplace or refuse unsafe work, contributed to the high rate of injury in this dangerous occupation.

The roll out of farm-worker rights has been lengthy:
  • Mandatory workers’ compensation coverage for paid, non-family farm workers came into effect in early 2016. Since then, 1860-odd claims for injuries have been accepted. 
  • A set of industry-dominated technical working groups hashed out the recommendations for how the Employment Standards Code, the Labour Relations Code, and the OHS Code would apply.
  • In January of 2018, most Employment Standards began applying to paid non-family farm workers. The notable exceptions were the continued absence of rules around hours of work, rest periods, and over time. These exceptions create a heightened risk of fatigue-related injuries.
  • Also in January of 2018, paid farm workers gained the right to join a union and collectively bargain—although none have been certified so far. 
  • The rules about paid child labour on farms are still be sorted out.
Alberta’s new farm OHS rules come into effect on December 1, 2018. While advocates for farm worker rights have much to celebrate, it is important to be mindful of Alberta’s poor record of enforcing its OHS laws and a number of troubling exceptions granted to the farm lobby, particularly the ongoing use of legacy (i.e., old) equipment.

In all other industries, a professional engineer must certify equipment that has been modified or is being used in a way that does not comply with the manufacturer’s specification. This certification requirement is intended to ensure that the modification to or “off-label” use of the equipment is safe. Similarly, powered equipment over 700kg must have rollover protection. This reflects that machine rollovers are a common cause of injury in agriculture.

These requirements have been relaxed for farms and ranches. Safe work procedures (i.e., “be careful!”) can be substituted for actual rollover protection. And a “competent” person (who is not an engineer) can give the okay around modifications to or off-label use of equipment.

Competent is defined as “adequately qualified, suitably trained and with sufficient experience to safety perform work without supervision or with only a minimal degree of supervision.” In practice, what this will mean is that someone with experience using that piece of equipment (likely the employer) can sign off that modifications or off-label uses are safe.

This is a troubling a definition of competency. The ability of farmers to meaningfully assess equipment’s capacity to perform work without risk of mechanical failure and their ability to determine what off-label uses of equipment are safe is suspect. Most lack the education and skills of professional engineers.

Further, farmers have a conflict of interest in such determinations. Specifically, if a farmer decides equipment is unsafe, this will entails additional costs to the farmer in the form of repairs, replacement equipment, or more complex and likely slower operating procedures. For these reasons, every other industry requires a truly competent and disinterested third party to certify equipment.

The certification of legacy equipment is a particularly important issue in farming because equipment often remains in use for decades. Along the way, user manuals get lost (so farmers may not know what the original manufacturer specifications were), safety standards change (i.e., many tractors don’t have roll bars or cages), equipment gets modified or re-purposed, and otherwise subjected to “emergency repairs” in the field.

Not all legacy equipment is unsafe or is used in ways that are contrary to manufacturer specs. But some legacy equipment will have modifications or alternative uses are unsafe. For example:
  • A guard might be cut off a machine to make it easier to clear a jam, perhaps while the machine is running.
  • The bucket of a front-end loader may be used as a lift to allow a worker to change a light bulb.
  • Roll-over protection may be cut off, shortened, and re-attached by a farmer with rudimentary welding skills in order to allow a tractor to fit through a barn door.
The 2014 death of farmworker Stephen Murray Gibson illustrates the consequences of a permanent exemption from meeting manufacturer specs and other standards. Gibson was killed after becoming entangled in an unguarded power take off (PTO). (A PTO is a drive-shaft that spins at high speed to transfer power from a engine to some other equipment.)

Fatigue may have played a factor in his death (he had been working 28 straight days). But an important root cause was the unguarded PTO. According to the fatality inquiry, the employer:
…bought from a neighbour a 40- or 50-year old grain roller and PTO. The roller has three safety shields on it; the PTO, although it would originally have had a safety shield, at the time Mr. Hamilton acquired it, did not. No manual came with the equipment, either.
Given that farm equipment can often stay in use for decades, allowing employers to approve modifications or uses that deviate from manufacturer’s specs means generations of farm workers will continue to be exposed to unremediated hazards. This is unacceptable in any other industry because the result will be worker injury and death.

Not only do Alberta’s new OHS rules allow this practice to continue, but they also allow unsafe legacy equipment to be sold on to other farmers. When questioned during the press conference about why the government would allow this to happen, the Labour Minister at least had the decency to look uncomfortable as she deflected the question by saying annual certification of legacy equipment was not practicable.

The assertion that addressing unsafe legacy equipment is not practicable is simply untrue. Where such equipment has been modified or is used outside of manufacturer specs (or specs are no longer available), the government could have required certification by an engineer within a reasonable time period.

Equipment that failed certification could have been require to be brought into compliance or retired within another reasonable time period. The rules about annual recertification could have been relaxed to require recertification only when the equipment or use changes.

Instead of implementing some kind of sunset clause on hazardous equipment, the government effectively took a pass. The result of this choice by the government will be more injured and killed farm workers.

My belief is this decision represents a political saw-off between the government and the farm lobby. Producer groups sought to minimize the financial impact of Bill 6 on farms. Consider, for example, their recommendations around the application of the Employment Standards Code which seek to grind wages and eliminate regulation on hours of work.

So producers talked the government into funding much of the cost of compliance with the new rules. Individual producers are eligible for up to $10,000 in government grants to improve safety. The new industry safety association (AgSafe) also got $170,000 in start up money.

And producers agreed to relatively low-cost OHS rules (such as hazard assessments), while pushing back on higher-cost requirements. These higher cost requirements (for which farmers got blanket instead of case-by-case exceptions) include the certification of legacy equipment, the provision of adequate washroom facilities in remote locations, installation of rollover protections on tractors, and structural changes to allow effective fall protection when working on bins and other structures.

Basically, the farm lobby is trading workers’ health and lives to maintain their members’ profit margins. This is at once economically understandable and morally reprehensible.

The government’s willingness to grant exceptions that will lead to these kinds of injuries reflects that they want the support of producer groups in the run up to the 2019 election. Specifically, the New Democrats want to deny Jason Kenney the opportunity to campaign against Bill 6. Having all provincial farm groups say these rules are reasonable and should not be rolled back will help the NDs in their efforts to get re-elected. They can now declare victory on farm safety and close this difficult file.

To be fair to the government, it took a lot of political courage to provide basic employment rights to farm workers. It was courage 40 years worth of conservative governments couldn’t muster and workers died as a result. And these new OHS rules do contain the potential to make farm workers significantly safer on the job.

Whether farms and ranches actually become safer depend upon the degree to which the government meaningfully enforces these rules. Based on the government’s OHS record in other industries, I’m skeptical that we’ll see much enforcement except when a worker is seriously injured or killed (i.e., after it is too late). And the exceptions the government created in these rules means workers will continue to be injured and killed by unsafe legacy equipment.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 6, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Incentive Pay at the Office



This week's instalment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at incentive-pay systems as portrayed on the television show The Office. I'm currently revising AU's introductory human resource management course and incentive pay is one of the topics we touch on.

The basic idea, as noted by one of the workers in the sketch, is that the employer wants more production out of the workers without paying them more. So manager Andy sets up a points system whereby workers can win low-value prizes for achieving performance targets.

Incentive-based pay sounds like a good idea, but it is fraught with peril for employers because designing an effective system is tricky. Set rewards too low and they have no effect. Set rewards too high and they can drive all sorts of perverse behaviour, such as increasing quantity at the expense of quality.

The Office does a nice job of noting that the interests of workers and employers conflict in such systems and that workers can, if they work collectively, subvert these systems. This is a good lesson for wannbe managers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Alberta enforcement efforts incentivize wage theft

Two weeks back, Alberta announced that it would be sending letters to employers alleged to have stolen workers’ wages. These letters will be sent after a worker files an Employment Standards complaint but before the government investigates.

The idea is to identify and resolve complaints where the employer is willing to pay as quickly as possible. The government asserts that a similar initiative in Ontario reduced the number of investigations by 25%. (I was unable to find any data about its impact on wage recovery.)

Triaging wage-theft complaints is intended to conserve investigative resources. These resources may then be focused on wrapping up investigations more quickly. This matters because fewer than half of ES complaints are being concluded within 6 months of being filed.



For workers waiting for wages, this kind of delay is very difficult. While faster resolution of “easy” complaints may help the government increase the number of complaints resolved with 6 months, it ignores the root issue: understaffing.

As I noted last October, in 2016/17, Alberta employed only 45 ES inspectors and 8 other ES staff to regulate wage theft in a non-unionized workforce of about 1.8 million. I did hear a rumour that more ES staff will be hired, but I have seen no confirmation. It is impressive that so few ES staff can resolve nearly 6000 claims per year.

EDIT 2018.09.16: A Calgary Herald story says there are now 73 ES inspectors. Doesn't change the general argument but is better data.

While the government’s press release has garnered positive press coverage, it is useful to ask what the announcement will actually mean for workers.

The release indicates employers will be told they have three options: they can pay the amount claimed, they can dispute the claim (which triggers an investigation), or they can settle with the worker for a mutually agreeable amount.

Alberta has a long history of seeking to settle ES claims through mediation. When “successful”, mediation often means workers end up accepting less money than they are owed. Here's a fictional example of how it works in practice:

The worker files a complaint for, say, $1000 in unpaid wages. The employer says, “I’ll give you $500”. The worker must then decide between $500 bucks today for sure or rolling the dice, waiting six or more months, and maybe getting an order directing the employer to pay $1000 (maybe) which many employers evade anyways (there is $19 million in orders for unpaid wages on the books rights now).

Understandably, the worker is probably going to say “fuck it, gimme the cash” and accept the $500 loss.

The problem with mediated settlements is that the law says the worker should have gotten the full $1000. Past governments have underfunded ES and forced bureaucrats to adopt mechanisms whereby the government essentially helps employers break the very law that the system is supposed to enforce by pressuring workers to relinquish at least part of the wages they are legally due is they want any of their owed wages in a timely manner.

Now, in this example, the worker is $500 better off than the worker would be without the Employment Standards system. But is this process really consistent with Labour Minister Christina Grey’s assertions that “Our government has the backs of working people” and “This action will help us better serve employees so they can get the wages they have earned”?

I’m inclined to say no.

What would help is aggressively prosecuting and publically embarrassing a few bad-actor employers. Get some serious fines imposed. Put some newspaper, radio, Facebook, and bus ads out saying “So-and-so’s Steakhouse screwed its workers out of $15,000 in wages last year. Do you really want to dine there?”

Employers are smart and, faced with enforcement, they’ll get the message that the cost of wage theft just went up and they will change their behaviour. By contrast, a policy facilitating employers having to pay only a fraction of the owed wages incentivizes employers to engage in wage theft.

This announcement is the second concerning ES issue to appear in the past few weeks. Alberta just completed a consultation about changes in its child labour laws. The proposed laws would dramatically expand the jobs 13- and 14-year-olds can do to include light janitorial work, work at a gas station, perform food prep and grounds-keeping duties, work on an assembly line, and painting.

These are hazardous jobs. The government has attempted to limit young workers’ exposure to the worst hazards of these jobs by limiting the tasks they can perform. But the evidence on child labour in Alberta is pretty clear: once workers are in the workplace, employers ignore the rules. Trusting employers to obey these new rules is na├»ve and endangers children.

-- Bob Barnetson