Tuesday, August 31, 2010

OHS in downsizing, outsourcing and homework

Precarious employment—work characterized by poor wages, few benefits, difficulty accessing statutory protections and entitlements, and job insecurity—is an important theme in the study of labour and employment.

The risk of workplace injury is of particular concern for precarious workers. Two recent review article provide an overview of the health and safety effects of organizational choices such as downsizing, outsourcing and home work.

In “Under pressure, out of control, or home alone? Reviewing research and policy debates on the occupational health and safety effects of outsourcing and home-based work”, Australian researchers Michael Quinlan and Philip Bohle examined 25 studies to determine the effects of subcontracting and home-based work to determine whether such arrangements exposed workers to greater risk of injury, illness or assault.

Ninety-two percent of the studies found poorer OHS outcomes with the remainder finding mixed effects. The mix of research methods and indicators of OHS in the 25 studies reviewed make these finding persuasive. The authors suggest that economic pressures on workers (encouraging greater work intensity and compromised standards), disorganization (i.e., a lack of systematic training and supervision) and regulatory failure (i.e., difficulty in ensuring statutory minimums are met) all contribute to these outcomes.

A second study by the same authors (“Overstretched and unreciprocated commitment: Reviewing research on the occupational health and safety effects of downsizing and job insecurity”) considers the OHS effects of restructuring and downsizing. The resulting use of temporary workers and rising job insecurity exhibits dimensions of precariousness. Of the 86 studies identified, 85% found poorer OHS outcomes, 8% found mixed effects, 5.8% finding no effect and 1.2% finding a positive effect. The authors again use notions of economic pressures, disorganization and regulatory failure to explain these poorer outcomes.

Overall, these studies add substantial weight to the notion that precarious work can increase the risks faced by workers. They also provide a useful theoretical framework within which to study individual workplaces.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, August 20, 2010

Injury risk for immigrants and women

There have been few Canadian studies of the relationship between injury rates and immigration status. A 2009 study, for example, reports immigrant men in their first five years in Canada had a lower rate of activity-limiting injuries but were more likely to require medical attention for them (versus Canadian-born male workers).

A new study published in the American journal of industrial medicine examined the risk of experiencing a compensated injury in Montreal, with specific attention to demographic descriptors such as gender, ethnicity, linguistic group and immigration status.

"Are immigrants, ethnic and linguistic minorities over-represented in jobs with a high level of compensated risk? Results from a Montréal, Canada study using census and workers' compensation data" found immigrants as well as ethnic and linguistic minorities tend to work in more dangerous occupations, although this relationship appears stronger for women.

The propensity of immigrants as well as ethnic and linguistic minorities to under-report injuries (as well as the spectre of under-compensation) make it difficult to determine whether this translates into a greater risk of injury. Yet the study does point out a potential source of social inequity in occupational health and safety via the distribution of risky work along demographic lines. More plainly, higher rates of injury among minority groups may be caused by occupational segregation rather than a characteristic or behaviour prevalent within such a group.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Workplace fatalities in Alberta

Following a recent Calgary Herald series that addressed how the provincial government handles workplace fatalities, the Alberta Federation of Labour has conducted some additional research into Alberta prosecution rates.

The crux of the AFL's complaints are that (1) it takes a long time (often 4 years) to get a conviction, (2) convictions are sought and achieved in a small minority of cases, and (3) fines are low and sometimes not collected. Overall, delay and low fines create little incentive for employers to change their occupational health and safety practices.

There is some literature to support this assertion. A 2007 study (E. Tompa, S. Trevithick and C. McLeod, “Systematic Review of the Prevention Incentives of Insurance and Regulatory Mechanisms for Occupational Health and Safety,” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health 33(2) (2007): 85-95) found limited evidence that health and safety inspections resulted in fewer or less severe injuries. There was also only mixed evidence that the prospect of being penalized for health and safety violations lead to fewer or less severe injuries.

The researchers suggest several possible explanations, including the penalties may not be significant enough to motivate compliance. It may also be that organizations do not always act rationally. Tompa et al. did find strong evidence that actually being penalized led to a reduction in injuries. This suggests that enforcement of regulations can positively affect workplace safety. All of this and more is available in my new book, The political economy of workplace injury in Canada which you can download for free as an open-source e-book.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Precarious work and injury compensation

A recent study in the American journal of industrial medicine examined whether particular groups of labor force participants were more or less likely to receive compensation following an absence from work of one week or longer due to a work-related injury or illness.

The study "Differences in access to wage replacement benefits for absences due to work-related injury or illness in Canada" concludes that women, younger workers, recent immigrants, part-time employees, employees with shorter job tenures, those from small workplaces, and those who were not members of a union or collective bargaining agreements were all less likely to receive any form of income replacement during their work absence. While the authors do not explicitly tie the results to the concept of precarious work, these groups workers and/or job characteristics are frequently associated with precarious employment.

The study also highlight the importance of legislated employment rights to specific subgroups of workers. Recent immigrants, younger workers, or workers with short job tenure were unlikely to receive any employer-benefits during absences caused by workplace injuries other than workers' compensation. Overall, approximately 50% of the study's subjects receive no
workers’ compensation income and just over 20% received no compensation whatsoever during their absence.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gender discrimination and precarious employment

A recent article in Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations by Marisa Young sheds some new light on gender and precarious employment.

“Gender differences in precarious work settings” uses US data to examine two competing theories about why women are over-represented in precarious work settings: human capital theory (i.e., women make different choices than men about skills development) and gender stratification (i.e., women are discriminated against).

The study confirms what most practitioners would expect. Women typically have less work experience than men and women typically spend more time on family commitments than men. Women are also typically earn less than men and are more likely to work part-time. The value of the study is that it analyzes the contributions of work experience and family commitments to the incidence of lower pay and part-time employment.

The gist of Young’s conclusions are these:

1. Controlling for education and experience, men receive higher wages and are less likely to work part-time than women.
2. Controlling for time spent on family commitments, women appear more penalized ( in the form of lower pay and part-time employment) than men for undertaking these tasks.
3. While human capital investments do decrease the likelihood of precarious employment, they do so less effectively for women than for men, in part because of underlying gender discrimination in the workplace.

In short, these findings suggest that employer discrimination makes an independent contribution greater job precariousness for women than men. This finding makes it more difficult to dismiss gender differences in the likelihood precarious employment as a function of women’s choices and forces us to consider discrimination as a source of difference.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Farm Workers to Remain Excluded

While government consultations are still continuing, the Calgary Herald is reporting that farm workers will continue to be excluded from Alberta's occupational health and safety and workers' compensation laws. This seems like an odd choice, given the Minister of Employment's announcement last week that he will be improving Alberta's OHS system in the wake of the Auditor General's report from April.

“Let this serve as official notice for any Alberta company that doesn’t want to play by the rules,” said Minister Lukaszuk. “Today is a new day for Occupational Health and Safety in Alberta.” Unless, it seems, you are n employer in an occupation that falls outside the rules due to statutory exclusions.

Alberta farm workers remain one of Canada's least protected employee groups. Farm and ranch employees are not subject to minimum wage, hour of work, overtime, vacation pay, general holiday pay, rest periods and child labour provisions of the Employment Standards Code. Farm and ranch workers are also excluded from labour legislation that regulates unionization and collective bargaining, thereby effectively precluding these activities by workers.

Farm and ranch workers are exempted from health and safety legislation by regulation. By contrast, Ontario brought farm workers under the ambit of its OHS legislation in 2006. And workers’ compensation coverage is not mandatory for farm workers, although employers can purchase optional coverage . Workers whose employers do not voluntarily purchase workers’ compensation insurance are left to pursue recourse for injuries through the courts or private insurance schemes, routes employees have traditionally had difficulty accessing.

An important question is why exclude a vulnerable group from basic employment rights broadly available throughout Canada? This article suggests that doing so runs contrary to the interests of the state, agricultural corporations and farmers. And that the gerrymandering of Alberta's electoral boundaries to ensure rural voters are over-represented creates a political imperative for the government to maintain the exclusion, particularly in light of the political threat posed by the Wild Rose Alliance.

Unfortunately for agricultural workers, this means they have effectively no statutory protection on the job.

-- Bob Barnetson