Monday, February 28, 2011

Think Tank says Gov't Salaries Too High

Insight into Government is a weekly newsletter following provincial politics. In its February 25th edition, Insight examined a recent report released by a think tank regarding public sector salaries. With kind permission of Insight, that analysis is reprinted below.

Editorial writers and columnists had fun spewing easily worked up wrath this week over a “background paper” showing that public-sector salaries have increased faster than salaries in any other job sector since 1998. The paper came from a think tank (the Frontier Centre for Public Policy). So it had to be well considered, right?

Maybe. Various organizations churn out stuff like this. Their output often raises more questions than it answers. This paper did not track salaries in specific government jobs. It tracked overall changes in several job categories. Thus, if lower-paid jobs were being trimmed or privatized, the remainder would have shown up as earning higher average salaries, even if salaries for specific jobs were not moving much.

Nor was there any attempt to look into the relative ages of different workforce sectors; all things being equal, a more experienced employee force would earn more. Nor was there a discussion of the start date — because 1998 was about the end of major government cutbacks in Canada, it’s possible that public administration salaries were beginning a major rebound then. Selection of starting points is one of the biggest traps in this kind of study.

The author covers these and other possibilities by saying that “benign explanations” may exist but “are not evident” — meaning they didn’t look for any. Nor did the media who seized on the paper without asking questions.

But the main problem is that the conclusions are not fully supported by Statistics Canada numbers. Insight checked Statscan’s average weekly earnings reports. We found that the current series shows monthly numbers from January 2006 through November 2010. For Canada, public administration earnings grew by 18.1% in that period — compared with increases like 17.6% for professional, scientifi c and technical services, 34.8% for mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction, and 43.3% for accommodation and food services.

For Alberta, increases in some of the more noteworthy categories were: public administration, 30.7%; accommodation and food services, 38.1%; health and social assistance, 27.9%; educational services, 23%; management of companies and enterprises, 33.6%; mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction, 33.1%. Finally, comparing increases is not the same as comparing earnings. Food and hotel workers earn on average about half what people in public administration earn. Oil and gas workers earn about 50% more.

The closest match to weekly earnings in public administration in Alberta is in areas like wholesale trade and manufacturing. Much more analysis is possible. But the point was to create impressions of government spending and public sector workers. This paper, like many others on other subjects, went some distance to achieving its purpose.

Insight's critique provides a useful caution about the validity of think-tank studies. For practitioners, it is often useful to consider the conclusions reached by examining the think tank's goals, its funders and its general policy orientation. The Frontier Centre is, to my eye, fairly conservative in orientation. That it would produce a study suggesting public sector wages are high is hardly surprising.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Migrant worker report released

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have released their 9th annual status of migrant farm workers in Canada report . While understandably Ontario focused, this report provides quite a shocking look into the working conditions facing workers from other countries who travel to Canada to harvest our crops.

The report focuses on workers who come to Canada under the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (CSAWP), and the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) Program for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training. Both of these programs provide migrant workers with access to few of the workplace rights Canadians take for granted.

The consequence of these programs (which provide cheap labour to Canadian farmers) are borne by the workers. Government statistics in Alberta show 74% of Alberta’s 407 TFW employers inspected had violated the Employment Standards Code regarding pay rates and record keeping. Workers were being short changed on the hours they worked and the pay they received. Threats of reprisals mean Alberta’s complaint-driven enforcement approach is all but useless.

A study of Ontario migrant farm workers found nearly half of workers reported working while sick or injured was the norm due to fear of reprisal. Half of those ordered to work with chemicals and pesticides reported necessary safety gear (e.g., gloves, masks, and goggles) were not provided. Most workers received no safety training and only 24% of those injured filed a workers’ compensation claim due to fear of being docked pay, repatriated, or being blacklisted from returning the next season.

Canadians wouldn’t accept this sort of treatment. Why do governments expect migrant workers to do so?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 11, 2011

WCB premiums and return to work

The Alberta Federation of Labour produces a periodical called Union magazine. In the latest edition, there is an interesting piece about the relationship between returning injured workers to modified work and WCB premiums. The crux of the article is this statement:

Alberta's WCB, however, collects the lowest premiums in Canada from employers in dangerous industries. Simply put, WCB is not collecting enough revenue from premiums and it balances its books on the backs of workers and their families by putting a squeeze on payouts.

Whether WCBs inappropriately return injured workers to work earlier in order to minimize employer premiums is an interesting research question that is tricky to approach, in part because of the political nature of the question.

There is certainly a fair bit of circumstantial evidence hinting at this (I have an article in review the indirectly touches upon this). And, as the AFL article notes, worker advocates suggest this sort behaviour occurs. Certainly in Alberta, the politics of such a strategy are quite workable.

More interesting still is the impact of the inappropriate use of return-to-work programs on workers. This has been nicely documented by Ellen MacEachern in an article well worth reading.

-- Bob Barnetson

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Music for workers

When writing courses, I often dig up far more material than can be included. A new version of Athabasca University’s IDRL 201 (Labour Unions) ought to be available this summer and it includes a heavy video component. To make the course manageable, I left out a fair bit of union- and work-related music that I came across.

Before dumping my files, I thought I’d post some of my favourites. Tppping the list (from a pedagogical perspective) is Dolly Parton’s classic 9 to 5. Dolly doesn’t feature on my iPod ever but few songs speak so clearly to the exploitation inherent in the employment relationship. I could not find a version with footage from the movie but I did find this strange Disney version. I wonder if Disney understood the content of the lyrics before they shot this?

Musically similar but less nuanced is Johnny Paycheque’s classic Take this job and shove it (a favourite of my father). While the song isn’t really all that insightful, the video below contains pictures of the destruction wrought by a laid off worker upon his employer in Hinton, Alberta. This speaks to the different forms of power workers and employers have. Yeah, the worker got fired. But dang, was it an expensive termination for his employer!

A more nuanced look at the experience of blue collar workers is Bruce Springsteen’s Factory. While the song dates from the 1970s, it still rings true of contemporary blue collar work suggesting not all that much has changed (for workers) in our alleged post-Fordist world.

More contemporary is Big Sugar’s All hell for a basement, written about workers relocating to Fort McMurray. The video below contains a series of images focusing on well testing in Alberta. Raw footage of workers doing their jobs is uncommon which is why I chose the video below. The lyrics also speak to the psychological effects of prolonged unemployment.

There is a fairly large catalogue of songs about miners and the effects of mining on workers. A fairly evocative song about the effects of mining on workers is Black lung. This version is sung by Hazel Dickens.

A more modern take on a similar issue (asbestosis) is Blue sky mine by Midnight Oil.

As a child of the ‘80s, I also feel compelled to include Styx's Blue collar man. Not really lyrically insightful but I cannot get enough of the gimmicky keyboards in this song, the leather pants everyone is wearing and the wicked mullet the guy in the blue coat is wearing (is that Dennis DeYoung? I must dig out my copy of Desert Moon).

I wonder what this sounds like now that Gowan is fronting Styx?

-- Bob Barnetson