Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Child labour in the developing world

With the end of school upon us, many children and adolescents are starting summer jobs. World Vision has timed some new material about the worst forms of child labour around the world to coincide with this.

My blogger-fu is too weak to embed their video in the blog, but if you click on the link above it should jump you to the World Vision site where you can trigger the videos.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nursing "shortage" reflects political decisions

The Edmonton Journal has posted an interesting story about the job prospects of nursing graduates. Looking past the basic narrative, what the story reveals is labour shortages or surpluses in the public sector are political creations, largely unrelated to actual supply and demand.

The article details the recent history of the nursing labour force in Alberta. There was a shortage in 2008, with the province spending big recruiting from India, the Philippines and United Kingdom and closing operating rooms.

Then, in 2009, the province had too many nurses and froze hiring and spent $20 million buying out older (more expensive) nurses.

And now we're back to a shortage and the the province agreed to a three-year contract with the union wherein promised to hire 70 per cent of all nursing graduates into regular positions.

So what does this tell us? A reasonable person might first question the competence of senior health managers who don't seem to know if there is a shortage or surplus and have spent money "fixing" both "problems" in the course of three short years.

A more insightful analysis is that worker "shortages" and "surpluses" in Alberta's public sector don't mean there is an actual shortage or surplus of workers. Rather, a "surplus" of nurses means the province want to reduce spending and is going to cut nursing positions. A "shortage" means the province is flush and/or is getting heat for poor health care and wants to buy its way out of its problems.

We saw something similar in education earlier this year, when the premier was announcing hundreds of millions of dollars in new school construction (meaning huge contracts for the construction industry, a strong supporter of the conservative government) at the same time the Minister of Education was pleading poverty and forcing school boards to layoff teachers (cough, cough).

Such duplicity significantly damages the credibility of the government. Can we trust politicians when they announce there are too many or too few workers? Indeed, can we trust anything a government politician says about the labour market? Given this environment, it is hardly surprising public sector unions have refused to cooperate with government austerity measures.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Canada blocks asbestos ban

Asbestos--a carcinogenic mineral mined in Quebec--has long been a source of injury to Canadian workers. Not just miners but construction workers, office workers and even their families. Over time, the deceit practiced by the asbestos industry and the blind eye turned by government has been revealed and its domestic use dramatically curtailed.

To maintain this industry, Canada has focused on exporting asbestos to the developing world. This ensures that workers there will face the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases we're seeing today. This policy choice is designed to keep about 500 people employed in (very hazardous) mining work in Quebec.

The Calgary Herald has picked up an interesting story out of Geneva. Countries are considering whether to add asbestos to Annex III of the United Nations' Rotterdam Convention. This would make it effectively impossible to continue major exports of asbestos.

Canada has been coy about whether it opposes this move or not. A small number of other countries (powerhouses like Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine) have opposed the inclusion of asbestos in Annex III, thereby keeping it off the list. This opposition melted over the past few days and, after staying silent (i.e., hiding behind Kyrgyzstan's skirts), Canada is suddenly voicing its opposition to including asbestos in Annex III.

Or, more accurately, the government is saying that Canadians think its cool to export a known carcinogen to the developing world where it will cause untold death and suffering. Another proud moment in the history of asbestos in Canada.

-- Bob Barnetson

Migrant worker housing and health

I ran across this study of housing provided to migrant farmworkers in BC's Okanagan Valley recently. The gist is that there is significant variability in the accommodations, some of the accommodation is substandard and that migrant workers have few avenues to seek recourse.

The topic of migrant workers was also examined in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Migrant workers were found healthy upon arrival, but limited access to health care, substandard working and living conditions, isolation, and language difficulties were threats to maintaining good health. These barriers also affected migrant agricultural workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, June 13, 2011

Is discipline warranted?

It would appear the dean of medicine at the University of Alberta has landed himself in the soup. According to press reports, he borrowed much of his speech to the graduating class from someone else’s work. He’s apologized and I think we’d all agree that he made a bad decision in mirroring the content of the earlier speech.

Yet some are calling for the dean’s resignation. The Edmonton Journal references the university’s Research and Scholarship Integrity policy, noting it precludes students from passing off someone else’s ideas as their own on pain of expulsion.

This case actually poses an interesting HR question. What would be an appropriate penalty?

Much of discussion is moralizing in tone and centres on whether this speech is plagiarism. I wonder if this is not something of a red herring. Yes, the fellow borrowed liberally from someone else’s speech. But a convocation speech (or Bar Mitzvah toast or a eulogy) is different from a piece of original research. There is no claim of ownership and there is no credit earned through deceit.

Don't get me wrong--this was bad judgment--but we need to see this in its context. If he’d hired someone to write his speech for him (a no-no in academic papers!), we would probably think that was quite alright. In fact, I've often wished academics would hire someone to write their dinner speeches... .

The short of this is, while it is awfully fun to catch a professor out, this isn’t really the same situation as a student who turns in a paper bought on or borrowed from the internet. Or a professor who passes off the work of another as his or her own in a journal article. And I’d venture the university policy mentioned by the Journal does not apply to a graduation dinner speech.

From the university’s perspective, this is obviously a PR gaff. But the fellow apologized. There was little harm done. And, given the media crucifixion that is unfolding, I’m guessing this won’t happen again any time soon!

So is there anything to be gained by disciplining the dean?

From an HR perspective, I’d say no.

But there is likely some risk in disciplining the dean. The dean might well grieve the discipline—which entails legal costs and the risk of an adverse result. Or he might quit—which also has large direct and indirect costs.

A wise HR approach might be to make disapproving noises and wait until this blows over. Which it will. Because this just isn’t that big of a deal.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Alberta welfare reform analysis

An interesting graduate student essay crossed my email this morning examining the short-term effect of Alberta’s 1993 welfare reform on welfare recipients and single mothers. Basically the study applied StatsCan data to the assertion of the time that “any job is a good job”.

During this time, Alberta reduced cash and other benefits to welfare recipients and limited benefits to those ready to work. It also increased how much a recipient could earn before benefits were reduced and implemented a variety of administrative measures designed to push recipients back into the workforce. This resulted in a drop in caseloads but not necessarily optimal outcomes for those who left the welfare system.

I’ve broken the important conclusion up into three pieces below and added some emphasis:
Both groups spent more time in the labour force and being employed. However, welfare recipients worked more hours with no significant changes in composite wage rate; whereas single mothers experienced 13.8 percent decline in wage rates but no change in paid hours. Both groups were more likely to be covered by collective agreement and participated in employer-sponsored pension plans. However, welfare recipients were also more likely to work regular evening schedule rather than daytime schedule.

Taking into consideration the responsibility of nurturing children among single mothers, the fact that single mothers experienced declined in wages but not significant changes in their work schedules; whereas welfare recipients in general saw no changes in wage rates but were more likely to work regular evening schedule might suggest the presence of compensation principle. Inflexibilities of single mothers in terms of working hours might prevent them to accept higher-paid jobs that require evening schedule.

Since the welfare reform prevented them from obtaining social assistance; however, these single mothers were prompted to accept low-pay jobs that they would not have otherwise accepted. This could be an undesirable policy outcome because the welfare reform might have introduced additional stress to single mothers by obligating them to provide for their children through working at low-pay jobs. (pp. 19-20).
In effect, this study suggests that the changes in welfare policy had the effect of re-commodifying labour. That is to say, workers were compelled to accept work they otherwise wouldn’t because reduced welfare availability applied the whip of hunger to them. This, not surprisingly, appears to have differentially impacted workers, with single mothers being more negatively affected.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Two-tier minimum wage

As expected, the province announced it would increase the minimum wage yesterday. The new minimum (as of September 1) will be $9.40 an hour, unless you serve liquor (then it will $9.05).

The minimum wage will then increase each year based on an indexing formula. Although the liquor-serving wage will not move until the reqular wage is $10.05 and thereafter the $1 an hour disparity will be maintained.

On the one hand, this increase is good for low-wage workers. It restores their buying power to what it was more than a year ago when the Minister froze a planned increase. It does not nothing to address that the minimum wage is difficult to live on but maintaining buying power is a laudable benefit for these workers.

That said, these workers would have been better off if Minister Lukaszuk had never interfered with the existing system of increases in the first place. The 17-month delay in the increase is inexcusable. In effect, these low-wage workers (mostly women) subsidized their employer's profit through forgone increases during this time. There is no back pay provided for these workers for the time they went without while the government twiddled its thumbs.

And, under the old system, those who serve alcohol would not be getting a lower wage. The official explanation for the two-tier system appears to that those who serve alcohol receive more tips thus need a lower wage. We seem to be straying here into strange territory, where the government is saying not only what the minimum wage should be, but also what the maximum wage should be. If someone works hard and hustles for tips, why should they be penalized by the government with a lower wage?

No, really. Why?

One explanation is that the restaurant and food services lobby in Alberta has pushed hard to reduce the minimum wage for servers. Simply, this system reduces reduces their labour costs. They orchestrated a laughable write-in campaign last fall. They have also met with the Minister (here's a nice pic from their website):

And they've met with the premier and gave him a spiffy jacket:

There is no hard evidence that anything untoward has happened here. (Although the Edmonton Journal is reporting that the Canadian Food and Restaurant Association is not a registered lobby group...). Businesses lobby. So do workers.

It is interesting, though, that businesses get to meet the Minister and the Premier and then policy outcomes go their way. Even though a legislative committee stacked with conservative members clearly rejected this approach last fall. By contrast, labour leaders are refused meetings and policy goes against them.

It will also be interesting to follow the conservative leadership race. Minister Lukaszuk is expected by many to declare his candidacy. If he runs, will his list of supporters include members of the restaurant and food services industry? If he runs, will he release his list of donors? This kind of transparency will go a long way towards restoring my faith balanced public policy making.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Minimum wage to go up?

The Caledon Institute for Social Policy released a paper addressing minimum wage in April. This report contains some interesting statistics about minimum wages (in constant dollars) over time as well as considering it as a percentage of average wages.

Alberta continues to have the second lowest minimum wage in Canada. As of November, it will have the lowest wage. And Alberta’s minimum wage is also the second lowest in terms of its percentage of an average wage. When compared to both US and Canadian jurisdictions, Alberta’s minimum wage of the 4th lowest.

The report also provides an interesting analysis of the potential effect over time of indexing the minimum wage to either inflation or average wages. The most salient comment in this analysis is that no method of indexing is effective if the basic minimum wage rate is inadequate to allow workers to live on.

Alberta was set to raise the wage (in accordance with an indexing formula) in 2010 when the Minister put the brakes on. A subsequent review recommended a 25-cent increase last fall. To date, there have been no action on this advice and low-wage workers (mostly women and mostly poorly educated) are still being paid the same minimum wage they received in 2009.

It is expected that later today the Minister will announce an increase in the minimum wage from $8.80 to $9 an hour (effective some time in the fall). While this is good news for minimum wage earners, there are some questions we should ask.

The first question is why the delay? An 18-month delay in an increase means low-wage workers subsidize employers through static wages. One answer might be that the government, facing flagging polling numbers, did not want to annoy business further. If so, it did that on the backs of low-wage workers.

The second question is why only a 20-cent increase? A legislative committee recommended a 25-cent increase last year. That maintained wage parity to April 2010. Only going to 20 cents means the buying power of low-wage workers falls behind. Further, there does not seem to be any accounting for the effect of inflation from April 2010 to May 2011. So low-wage workers fall further behind.

My guess is that the Minister is going to announce he is running for the leadership of the conservative party. A small increase in the minimum wage gives him a response to critics who might say that he treated low-wage workers poorly during his time as Minister. Yet, it is such a small increase and it has been put off so long he will not face major blowback from employers.

There is a political shrewdness to that strategy that you have to admire. Until you realize that it means low-wage workers (often women) are being used as political pawns. Then it becomes kind of disgusting.

-- Bob Barnetson