Monday, September 27, 2010

Research: The reflexive worker?

An interesting article appeared in Work, Employment and Society today. "The myth of the reflexive worker: class and work histories in neo-liberal times" examines the life-stories of 55 workers in Britain to assess the degree to which class continues to affect life choices. The idea that class remains an important determinant in life patterns runs contrary to the notion that "reflexive workers" navigate the increased insecurity that characterizes labour markets.

The article demonstrates the "work trajectories, despite changes that have taken place, are still driven along class tracks by class motors." Those workers with access to capital appear better able to explore new directions and cope with employment setbacks. Those without such access find themselves much less able to cope and thus make choices of necessity. Herein we see class remains an important driver of behaviour.

Class, of course, can have an international dimension as the growing use of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Alberta demonstrates. Traditionally limited to domestic workers, the use of TFWs has rapidly expanded. On October 19, the Work and Learning Network in partnership with the Prairie Metropolis Centre will be hosting a Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) symposium in Edmonton addressing TFWs in nursing.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Research: Safety Inspections and Injury Reduction

A new study in the Journal of Safety Research examines the impact of workplace inspections on injury rates. Confirming earlier research, this study finds that inspections that result in penalties affect injury rates, both those related to the inspections and those not related.

"What kind of injuries for OSHA inspections prevent?" estimates of the impact of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) penalty inspections in Pennsylvannia manufacturing firms with 20 to 250 employees between 1998 and 2005 on injury rates. More simply, if the government penalizes a firm for a safety violation, how does it affect the firm's subsequent injury rate?

The results indicate that inspections with penalties result in significant reductions in injury rates. The study found 4.1% annual reduction in the pooled injury rate of those injury causes that are more closely related to OSHA standards. Interestingly, there also appears to be a spill over effect with a 7.2% annual reduction in the pooled injury rate of those injury causes that are less closely related to OSHA standards. This suggests that firms respond to penalties by pulling up their safety socks in many areas as well as addressing the specific deficiencies noted by the inspection.

The conclusion that inspections with penalties make workplace safer is consistent with the broader literature. For example, Tompa et al.'s 2007 meta analysis examined how experience rating, inspections and inspections with penalties affect injury rates. Their conclusion are compelling:

"There was moderate evidence that the degree of experience rating reduces injuries, limited to mixed evidence that inspections offer general and specific deterrence and that citations and penalties aid general deterrence, and strong evidence that actual citations and penalties reduce injuries."

This raises the question of why Alberta continues to focus so much effort on experience rating and incentive schemes and relatively little effort penalizing safety violators? While rewarding employers that report few injuries and not penalizing employers with injuries and fatalities is likely politically popular with employers, its seems an unlikely way to protect workers--which is the point of occupational health and safety systems.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Minimum Wage to Rise

After the government suspended a scheduled increase in the minimum wage and requested the Standing Committee on the Economy to hold hearings this summer, the committee has recommended raising the minimum wage by 25 cents an hour and enshrining some form of indexing in legislation.

While this outcome is good for minimum wage earners, it is a bit hard to fathom what the point of this all was. Minister Lukaszuk's rationale that the scheduled raise imperiled jobs was never credible and clearly the Standing Committee on the Economy decided not to sign on to it.

I wonder if the submissions to the committee tell us something important about how public policy in Alberta is made. Seventy-five percent of the 220 submissions received by the committee were from members of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association. The CRFA has previously complained about increases in the minimum wage. Its own website documents a concerted campaign to freeze and, in some cases, reduce the minimum wage.

A quick look around shows that, when the planned 2010 increase was frozen, the CRFA wrote: "CRFA thanks those members who wrote to Premier Stelmach and the Employment and Immigration Minister over the past year in support of our minimum wage position."

It also noted: "In a follow-up meeting, CRFA thanked Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk for these actions and reiterated the need for minimum wage stability, adequate notice of increases, and the introduction of training wage and gratuity differentials." Perhaps that meeting is the one pictured here?

When the review was announced, the CFRA then encouraged members to sign this form letter. The CRFA's own submission can be found here.

The point of this is that it looks like a special interest group's lobbying influenced the Minister's decision to suspend the planned minimum wage increase and review the government's three-year old policy--decisions that withheld a needed wage increase for the most vulnerable of Alberta's workers. It is not often that one gets a glimpse of how public policy is made in Alberta.

The question this ought to raise for all workers is whether a similar approach to government by, say, a poverty action group seeking an immediate increase in the minimum wage would have triggered such dramatic action by the Minister and the government? If the government wouldn't have taken similar action on behalf of a non-business group, that likely tells us something important and disturbing about the biases of Minister Lukaszuk and the conservative government around the regulation of employment.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 3, 2010

An insider's view of OHS policy making

My colleague Jason Foster has just had an article published examining social dialogue as a way of setting employment regulations. "Talking ourselves to death? The prospects for social dialogue in North America--Lessons from Alberta" uses two case studies to examine the efficacy of this approach.

Foster considers the complex decisions that unions face about whether to participate in these forms of consultation. Of particular interest are his conclusions about the opportunity costs that comes with engagement as well as the largely defensive nature of the "gains" labour can make in such a process.

The cases also provide an insider's perspective on occupational health and safety policy making in Alberta. This is particularly relevant given the scrutiny the government has faced this summer over its poor record on prosecuting workplace fatalities. The most recent development here is the government's decision (eight years after it first promised to) to release data about employer safety records.

The injury data to be released, however, provides only a partial and, frankly, misleading view of workplace safety. It is unclear yet whether the government will respond to calls to release employer inspection data. Today the Minister suggested the laying of charges for a 2008 death was a sign the province will be "lowering the hammer" on unsafe employers.

While prosecutions after a worker has been killed on the job may sate our desire for justice, the real goal is prevent injuries. Alberta does a poor job of that. In 2009, there were 149,000-odd reported workplace injuries where workers at a minimum had to seek medical treatment for an injury they got a work. Given the degree of under-reporting or workplace injuries, the real number of injuries is likely close to double that.

The crux of the issue is whether the government will pony up the money to fund an effective inspection system. Right now the government spends about $2 million a year on OHS--the rest of the $23 million or so comes from the WCB. There is also the question of whether the government is prepared to accept the political backlash they will get from employers if there are more inspection.

Yet is there really any other alternative but more inspections if fewer injuries are to occur? If inspections are randomly distributed (and they likely are not), the present system sees each workplace inspected about once every 25 years--yes, Alberta has a once-a-generation inspection cycle. Despite all of the other levers the government has pulled (financial incentives, gory posters, pretty awards, stirring speeches), there are still 149,000 injuries annually. Clearly something significant needs to change in the government's approach.

-- Bob Barnetson