Thursday, June 24, 2010

Privacy and Safety in the Workplace

Two interesting newspaper articles have appeared this week.

The first is a privacy commissioner ruling regarding an email sent following an employee resignation. According to the article, " two managers sent out a memo that a "difficult" staffer quit to take a new job and that her new boss would need some luck to deal with her."

The commissioner ruled that this was a release of the employee's personal information without her consent. This ruling draws attention to how privacy laws are (or ought to!) alter human resource practices in the private sector.

The second is an in-depth investigation of how Alberta treats workplace deaths. In short, prosecution is rare, even for repeat offenders. There are a couple of interesting facts:

1. Alberta spends nearly five-times more money on insurance rebates to Alberta companies with government-endorsed safety certificates ($70 million in 2009) than it spends inspecting job sites and enforcing occupational safety laws ($15 million in 2009-10). These rebates are available to companies with worker fatalities--even those with multiple deaths.

2. Of those workers killed on the job since 2003, three-quarters occurred on worksites where inspectors identified safety violations. Only one-third of these cases were prosecuted to a verdict.

3. Several former OHS investigators express frustration with the lack of support for prosecutions.

Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk comments are important:

“If there are ideas and there are mechanisms that will make our workplace safer, I’m open to looking at it."

This is a common answer from Lukaszuk on OHS issues. While it seems reasonable enough at first glance, it places the responsibility for ensuring the laws are enforced on the shoulders of worker advocates (who must then often face opposition on committees from employer representatives).

Further, it glosses over the fact that the government modified the legislation eight years ago to allow on-the-spot fines and naming Alberta’s worst safety performers. The lack of action on implementing these provision is not about not having ideas or being restricted by the legislation. It reflects a lack of political will on the part of at least four successive Ministers to lower the boom on unsafe employers. The cost of this inaction is borne by workers and their families in the form of injuries and death.

-- Bob Barnetson

PS: Things will be quiet here the next month as I take a vacation.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Living Wage in Alberta

An interesting article kicked up on the Edmonton Journal website today. In short, it reports StatCan data suggesting 224,000 Albertans (13.7% of the workforce) earn less than $12 a hour--the amount needed to get over the low-income cutoff for StatCan (sometimes called the poverty line, a characterization StatCan does not agree with). Over 112,000 Albertans earn less than $10 an hour.

This information comes courtesy of Public Interest Alberta, a not-for-profit group that provides advice and commentary on issues of public interest. A region breakdown of the data is available.

There is an interesting gendered aspect to this data: "The statistics reveal that 58% of people earning less than $10/ hour are women over 20 years of age (17% are older than 45) and women make up 62% of low-income earners."

This data is released as the province's Standing Committee on the Economy is holding hearings on the future of the minimum wage. PIA has made a presentation to the Committee. Of particular interest is slide 5 which shows the real-dollar value of the minimum wage over time.

My own submission to the Committee is available here.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, June 7, 2010

Quebec Farm Workers can Unionize

Agricultural workers are frequently exempted from statutory employment rights in Canada. In recent years, this has been changing. For example, Ontario has been compelled to provide farm workers with the ability to unionized and collectively bargain , although this is presently under appeal to the Supreme Court and Manitoba has included agricultural workers in its employment standards legislation.

Last week, the Quebec Labour Relations Board ruled that Labour Code provisions of the that effectively preclude seasonal farm workers from gaining collective bargaining rights breaches the freedom of association guaranteed in s.2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The provision required a minimum of three workers be "continuously" employed at a farm if collective bargaining rights are sought, works against seasonal migrant workers (mainly from Latin America). As a result, the LRB certified a bargaining unit of six Mexican migrant workers at a vegetable farm near Mirabel.

Here in Alberta, farm workers are excluded from minimum wage, hour of work, overtime, vacation pay, general holiday pay, rest periods and child labour provisions of the Employment Standards Code. The Labour Relations Code precludes farm workers from organizing and the Occupational Health and Safety Act does not apply. Finally, employers are not required to have workers’ compensation coverage for farm workers. No other province is a thorough as Alberta in excluding agricultural workers from basic statutory employment rights.

An interesting question is why does Alberta treat farm workers this way? While too long to summarize in a blog post, this article suggests how the interests of farmers, the state and capital intertwine to maintain this arrangement. It is unclear how long Alberta will be able to resist the current wave of constitutional arguments against these exclusions.

-- Bob Barnetson