Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Will older workers solve the labour shortage?

Today the government of Alberta announced a new action plan for ensuring mature workers stay in the labour force longer as one way to address a projected labour shortage.

One of the compelling questions not addressed in the report is: do older Alberta workers, in any appreciable number, want to remain in the workforce past the average retirement age of 64 years (higher than the Canadians average of 61.9 years)?

According to Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk, yes they do: “Most mature workers want to stay engaged in the labour force in some capacity — maybe doing what they were doing all their lives but on a part-time or casual basis or changing careers altogether.”

But is it true?

There is no data in the action plan suggesting this is the case. Looking at some of the documents the action plan builds upon, a similar data gap emerges. For example, the 2008 Findings Report of the Demographic Planning Commission which talked to seniors had little to say about the desire of seniors to stay in the workforce beyond some motherhood statements and general handwringing about the cost of retirement.

The subsequent Aging Population Policy Framework (released in 2010) indicates a priority (under the general goal of ensuring Albertans have adequate financial resources for retirement) is to “Support Albertans who choose to remain engaged in the workforce in their senior years.” This is a laudable goal but again, we have no evidence about the degree of interest in working beyond the current retirement age.

Interestingly, the action plan does contain some information that ought to cause us to question the validity of the Minister’s statement. On page 20, the report notes: “A high percentage of older Albertans choose to continue working relative to the rest of Canada. 73.4% of Albertans aged 55-64 are active in the labour force compared to 61.9% of Canadians; and 16.5% of Albertans over age 65 choose to remain in the labour force compared to only 10.5% of Canadians.”

If we already have 50% more seniors working than the Canadian average, how likely is it that we can significantly increase this percentage? Have we, in fact, already tapped out this source of workers?

Again on page 20, the report notes: “In 2009, while the unemployment rate was 6.6% in Alberta and 8.3% across Canada, the unemployment rate for Alberta workers over age 55 was only 4.6% – suggesting that mature workers who choose to remain in the labour force are very likely to have employment. (p.20)”

Effectively, almost every older Albertan who wants to work is working. Again, is it likely that Alberta is going to significantly increase the number of older workers? Or is this pool tapped out?

I’m all for government intervention. But that intervention should be based on some credible case that the intervention will be effective. Obviously iron-clad proof is not possible, but how about something more than off the cuff speculation by the Minister that runs contrary to a common-sense reading of the data contained within the action plan?

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Alberta child labour laws unenforced

The Alberta Federation of Labour has released a four-page report on the lack of effective enforcement of Alberta's child labour laws.

“Tens of thousands of adolescent Albertans, aged 12 to 14, are employed and 21 per cent of them work in illegal jobs,” says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, which represents 140,000 workers. “The story for child workers, aged 9 to 11, is even worse, with 78 per cent doing work prohibited by the government.”

“There is no incentive for employers to ensure children and adolescents are working in safe and legal situations, or that they are being paid appropriately. Violations of employment standards laws simply result in a cease-and-desist order, or an order to pay wages owed.”

This report is based on research I conducted over the past few years, including survey research funded by the AFL.

-- Bob Barnetson

Migrant worker health

CTV is summarizing research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal about the impact of migrant farm work on the health of migrant workers in Ontario and BC.

I haven't been able to lay hands on the article yet but the CTV report is extensive and discusses many things that advocates for migrant worker rights will find familiar. Little safety training, poor living conditions, and limited access to clean water negatively impacts the health of these workers.

Basically, the come here, work for cheap and go home to (primarily) Mexico, Jamaica, and the Philippines sick. Ailments include b back pains, symptoms linked to gastro-intestinal disorders, heat exhaustion, pesticide exposure, and food- or water-borne disease. Many won't seek treatment because they don't know they can, they can't get time off, and/or they fear losing their job. Forty-five per cent report being fearful of reporting concerns to employers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Effect of Minimum Wage Increases on Employment

A new systematic review of the literature on the effect of minimum wages on employment rates (this time specific to young workers) is available. This research was conducted for the UK’s low-pay commission.

This review covers 12 countries (including Canada), which the reviewers divided into two categories: liberal market economies and coordinated market economies. Canada falls in the liberal market economy category. The report was not particularly kind to the Canadian research.

Overall, the gist of the report is that the employment effects (i.e., the number of jobs) caused by the introduction of a minimum wage or an increase of the minimum wage for young workers are very, very small and at the margins of statistical significance. Noted effects may also disappear as workers age.

This broadly accords with the more recent literature on the employment effect of minimum wage increases for adults. Basically, an increase in the minimum wage has little to no effect on employment rates.

From a policy perspective, what this suggests is that arguments against minimum wage increases because “it will drive up unemployment” are without any factual basis. Assuming those who make these arguments have bothered to do some rudimentary research (i.e., googled), we ought to then look beneath this argument for the real reason for their resistance to increasing minimum wages.

In Alberta, we have been waiting for the Minister of Employment and Immigration to act on a recommendation by the Legislature’s Standing Committee on the Economy to increase the minimum wage for half a year. One wonders when he will do something about the erosive effect of inflation on low wage earners—those who are predominantly female and poorly educated?

-- Bob Barnetson

Occupational hazards? Or environmental hazards?

We often talk about occupational injuries and hazards and focus our attention on occupation-based prevention and remediation. Yet the boundaries between occupational hazards and other hazards (e.g., environmental hazards) are quite blurry and permeable.

Leaded gasoline, for example, has created a massive environmental problem. Lead-contaminated soil remains a hazard to children decades after the last tank of leaded gasoline was burned. But the hazards of leaded gasoline were evident in the 1920s when workers (who are often the first people exposed to hazards) fell sick and died as a result of their exposure.

Other examples are legions. Cigarettes were an “environmental hazard” that were recognized as an occupational hazard only in the last few decades. Asbestos is a “workplace hazard” that has become an environmental hazard as asbestos products are now recognized as causing disease among those who live in proximity to their use.

Most of these examples tend to centre on biological and chemical hazards. Yet even plain-old physical hazards can cross over. The 2009 death of three-year-old Michelle Krsek in Calgary is an interesting example. Krsek was killed by debris that flew off a high-rise worksite during a windstorm. Material falling from a worksite is commonly viewed as an occupational hazard yet, in this case, it clear posed a much wider hazard.

Our current laws are poorly adapted to addressing such cross over issues. In February, the two companies involved in Krsek’s death were each fined $15,000 (the maximum). Had Krsek been a worker, each company could have been liable for a $500,000 fine and those responsible subject to up to six months in jail, (although it is an open question whether the government would have bothered to prosecute).

Non-workers who develop mesothelioma (an asbestos-triggered cancer) cannot seek compensation through workers’ compensation so must sue. But they will most likely be unable to prove when they were exposed, thus they will not be compensated for their death. Nor will the companies responsible for the exposure ever face prosecution. In fact, the government is currently sanctioning the export of asbestos (and its dangers) to the developing world.

One of the implications of the boundary-less nature of hazards is that there exists a (as yet nascent) potential for class-based action against companies that deal in hazardous products and governments that allow it. The potential for meaningful action has been dramatically increased by the greater connectively enabled by the internet—victims can more easily find one another and better coordinate their actions.

This increases the economic risk companies face when they choose to operate in hazardous ways or utilize hazardous materials. And it increases the political risk to governments that limit hazards regulation to “occupational hazards” or constrain compensation to “work-related accidents”.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Human rights process repeats victimization

Last week, the Edmonton Journal ran a follow-up story about a human rights complaint filed by a transgendered teacher. The short version is the teacher (Jan Buterman) claims the Greater St. Albert Catholic School Board removed him from the substitute teacher list four months after he informed the Board he was changing gender.

Buterman filed a human rights complaint in late 2009. In the meantime, Buterman began graduate study at the University of Alberta. Human rights complaints in Alberta move through a process of conciliation before a formal hearing. In 2010, the school board offered Buterman a cash settlement and a teaching job in exchange for dropping the complaint and agreeing to no longer talk about the complaint or the incident.

Buterman has declined the school board’s offer, in part because his graduate study includes research about this very issue. But refusing the offer allows the school board to move for dismissal of the complaint because a “fair and reasonable” offer was put on the table. The Alberta Teachers’ Association has stopped paying Buterman’s legal fees based upon its evaluation of the likely outcome of the case (read: the case is going to get tossed if Buterman does not accept the offer).

It is interesting how the conciliation process of the human rights tribunal creates a perverse outcome. Specifically, the process facilitates an employer buying the silence a victim of discrimination by threatening dismissal of the complaint (and thus the loss of compensation) unless the victim knuckles under.

This seems a rather odious dynamic. First, a complainant is (allegedly) victimized by the employer. And then the employer can simply buy its way out of the mess by including a confidentiality clause in its offer that the human rights commission process effectively forces on the victim—victimizing the complainant again.

How can silencing public discussion and academic research into human rights violations be consistent with the broad mandate of the human rights commission to “foster equality… through public education…”?

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, April 4, 2011

Women's health in the trades

The Edmonton journal is reporting an study underway in Alberta to examine the impact of metal and electrical trades on women's health.

This story has two interesting angles:

1. An admission by government that there is no reliable data about the impact of chemical hazards on the health of female or male welders. This sort of data gap is quite common and poses a fundamental threat to notions that occupational health and safety rules (including occupational exposure levels) provide any sort of meaningful protections to workers.

2. An admission by an employer that the women's health (particularly their reproductive health) is safeguarded by exclusion. That is to say, the employer does not investigate or remediate the hazard--they simply take women (generally pregnant women) out of the workplace. This is a fairly typical response which historically has disadvantaged women's careers.

This gendering of injury contributes to the social construction of some jobs as male and some as female. An implication of this is that we deem it acceptable to expose men to hazardous work (perhaps contributing to the higher rate of reported work-related injuries among men). A second implication is that women are exposed to less obvious hazards in their work (which may contribute to the lower rate of reported worker-related injuries among women).

Clear data about the health impact of metal and electrical work on women should prove useful. Hopefully the regulatory response is more nuanced than one of exclusion.

-- Bob Barnetson