Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Relaxing child labour laws in the US?

A colleague twigged me to an interesting story about child labour laws coming from the US. Newt Gingrich, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is proposing rolling back child labour laws. A variety of conservatives and business types have fallen into line. The following quotes capture the gist of the “argument”:
"How come it's OK, even exemplary, for teenagers to spend 40 hours a week in sports, glee club, chorus, debate society or any other select activity sanctioned by the social elite, but if you are a teenager who wants to work or needs to work, there are limits?"

"It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid."

"You give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office. I'll stand by the idea young people ought to learn how to work. Middle-class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness."

On the surface, these sorts of statements appeal to some voters. It is useful to clarify the assumptions they are premised upon:

1. Child labour is analogous to other activities children participate in.
2. The solution to family poverty is child labour.
3. Child labour is, on balance, a good experience for children.

Stated bluntly, there are, of course, some fairly clear problems with these assumptions. Employment differs from, say, glee club, in that employment is an economic, rather than educational, relationship. Few glee-club organizers face financial incentives to expose glee club members to unsafe work or excessive hours. Not so employers.

In fact, the exploitation of children by employers to drive down wages and production costs is why civilized countries enacted child labour laws in the first place a century ago. Suggesting employers won’t simply fall back into this behaviour is, at best, na├»ve and, at worst, intentionally deceptive.

Child labour is not the answer to family poverty. In the context of the United States, increasing adult employment (perhaps with adequate social supports) will do a better job of that. Further, government regulation is not the cause of trans-generational poverty—that is a byproduct of the functioning of capitalism whereby the (dis)advantaged maintain or increase their (dis)advantage over time.

And, finally, child labour is dangerous. While it may be possible to wander off into the abstract and conclude that, on balance, child labour is good, this ignores the reality of employing children.

Children are physiologically and intellectually immature. They are inexperienced and have difficulty avoiding dangers that experienced workers do. They tend to be grouped in dangerous occupations. They are less able to resist employer pressures around what they will do and how much they will be paid when compared to adult workers.

Relaxing child labour laws will both drive down wages and increase the number of children who are injured on the job. The attraction of low wages to employers is as understandable as employers’ willingness to maim and kill children to get low wages is reprehensible.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 19, 2011

Inter-generational conflict

The Edmonton Journal has an interesting story today about generational differences in income and prospects. Now, I’ve done my fair share of complaining about baby boomers in the workplace. And I’ve gone so far as to put a former colleague (who would not freakin’ retire) on the mailing list for a variety of senior lodges and leaving him job applications for WalMart and McDonalds mixed in with his paper work.

What resonated most with me in the Journal article was the need for two-income families to maintain a middle class lifestyle. This reflects wage stagnation over time for workers, while the cost of housing, energy and (most recently) food has increased.

The notion of generational conflict is certainly an interesting one. For those of you GenXers out there, the University of Toronto Press has recently published The making of a generation: Children of the 1970s in adulthood which largely validates much of what we’ve experienced.

This includes more education but tenuous labour market attachment, growth in economic inequity, delayed marriage and parenthood, work-life imbalance and a significant growth in low-distress mental health issues. Yet the culprit identified by the authors is not inter-generational conflict, but rather state social policy which facilitates externalizing the costs of social reproduction onto families.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 16, 2011

Don't google-up prospective employees

Alberta’s privacy commissioner is warning employers that vetting potential employees by using information found online may contravene Alberta’s privacy laws. You can view the very thoughtful and earnest advice provided here.

This is an interesting development but note that, out of the roughly 2 million employees in Alberta (tens of thousands of whom went through a hiring process last year), the privacy commission has one active complaint.

Now it could be that almost no employers google up potential applicants. But my sense is that this is a common practice. More likely, the lack of complaints reflects that potential employees are unlikely to know how their employer vetted them this way or that this may contravene their rights. And, as the vulnerable party in the employment relationship, are unlikely to complain even if they did know these two things.

We see a similar dynamic operating with Alberta’s child labour laws. Enforcement is complaint driven but the potential complainant (the child and the parents) basically don’t know their rights and don’t complaint, thus child labour is rampant (but hidden).

The privacy office has no real capacity to go out and proactively investigate instances of such violation. And they have no capacity to respond to any huge rush of complaints in a timely manner. The upshot is that Alberta employers can break this law with impunity.

This example is part of a broader problem with employment-related law in Alberta. The crux is that the government does not adequately resource (or politically support) effective enforcement of laws that constrain employer behaviour. This creates the veneer of state-protection but the reality is that these rights are hollow ones for workers with little labour market power (which is most of us).

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Impact of precarity on standard workers

I finally worked my way down to a paper I snagged this summer entitled “The hidden costs of contingency: Employers’ use of contingent workers and standard employees' outcomes”. This paper considers the impact of increasing employment precarity on workers in traditional jobs in the US by examining standard workers’ perceived job security, subjective attachment to their workplaces, earnings, and relationships with managers and coworkers.

The upshot is this:
There is strong evidence that employers' use of temporary workers is negatively associated with standard employees' perceived job security, subjective workplace attachment, and relationships with managers and co-workers. These negative relationships are found even after controlling for a large set of organizational, occupational, and individual variables. (p. 35)

While only statistically significant in the model predicting relationships with coworkers, the association between the use of on-call workers and standard employees‘ outcomes is positive across nearly all outcomes. This may mean that on-call workers serve as an institutionalized buffer within workplaces, signaling to standard employees that management is creating organizational slack to protect standard employees from market fluctuations. (pp. 35-36)

These results are important because they confirm the broadly held belief that the presence of a secondary labour force in a workplace can have unexpected and negative outcomes on core employees. But they also suggest that the manner in which an employer employs a peripheral labour force can play a mediating roll—using on-call workers may be a better option than temporary workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An employer perspective on OHS in Alberta

Several times a month, I get a phone call or an email from an injured worker who wants to talk about their injury or something I’ve posted. This week I’ve been having a fascinating exchange with a employer-side safety professional and my correspondent has agreed to allow me to draw upon our discussion on the condition of anonymity.

I don’t think my correspondent and I agree on a number of issues but our conversation provides an insider perspective on OHS in Alberta that is enlightening to read. I’ve selectively quoted a portion of our conversation (using ellipses) and added in a few clarification (or suppressed identifying details) using brackets [ ]:
…For the next year we have 2 very minor injuries and some minor first aid incidents. … Then the unthinkable happens - an employee amputates [a body part].

…[T]he employer steps up to the plate and does everything possible to facilitate recovery and rehabilitation. …Now here's the part where it gets interesting.... Due to the introduction of the PIR [Partners in Injury Reduction] program (again great idea but horrifically flawed) most of our clients require all of our confirmed performance stats as well as all COR [Certificate of Recognition] information.

The way the program is structured [means] another serious incident …[means]… the COR [will be] suspended pending an external audit of the systems despite the fact that performance over the past 18 months during very rapid and unprepared growth has shown their safety program and performance is excellent.

… Now they are faced with [XXX] employees potentially not working in a market where skilled help is very difficult to maintain. So what happens with MOST business at this point or even before it - is they will cheat.

Big companies are notorious for it. They will maintain their own medical staff, pay for air ambulance privately, have employees sitting in an office essentially doing nothing so time loss is either hidden completely or vastly minimized though no meaningful work was ever performed. I have worked for midsized employers in the past who had a practice of discouraging staff from any WCB paperwork and they would pay them to sit at home and recover in exchange.

This is far more common than one would like to think but its because the systems implemented ostensibly to improve safety have not achieved a safer work environment but has created penalization if you do not have huge dollars to put into disability "management" which in truth is all to often just subterfuge at the ongoing expense of the worker. In the mean time the real issues with workplace safety continue to languish because they are not effectively addressed by these programs and are a distraction to the employer in regards to what is actually important.

So now back to this particular company - another challenge crops up on their horizon – [a long-term degenerative injury manifests itself at work]. He agrees he cannot tie this to any particular thing - it has happened before over the years. The company has both short and long term disability - very prudent when looking after employees I think. However as this all progresses three different Doctors try very hard to turn it into a WCB claim rather than put it onto the disability insurance.

Turns out in Alberta if you are on WCB you can jump the line for treatments because the WCB mandate is to reduce costs therefor push treatment through rapidly. No one will openly admit this but Doctors advocating for their patients will in these instances try to turn it into a WCB claim for quicker treatment. So now the Doctors have pushed WCB and WCB contacts the employer and tries to also force the claim.

Can you imagine what this does - they face yet another lost time claim that may never turn into a productive rehabilitated employee without pain - their WCB rates go through the roof - they have paid for disability insurance that is not allowed to be used as was intended and perhaps now the COR is suddenly at stake and therefore the business. The coming year begins to look very shaky indeed.

The natural thing for them to do now is fight every claim on every level legitimate or not. This employer has now been forced from the position of following all the rules to having to invest in the same tactics used by larger corporations and guess what - in the end is at the expense of the workers.

Let’s assume that everything my correspondent says is correct. It might not be (although it broadly jives with what workers tell me, which increases the credibility in my eyes) but let’s pretend and see where that takes us. My reaction is that this example highlights systemic issues in injury prevention and compensation that are exacerbated by the government’s PIR and the WCB’s experience rating program.

Setting aside the issue that injury prevention is basically ineffective in Alberta, it appears that (usually large) employers can and do hide injuries. They have two incentives to do this: first they minimize their WCB premiums (a claims record with few or no costs on it leads to experience rating and PIR premium rebates) and second they maintains their ability to secure work for companies that must have a COR.

Herein we see the putative goal of experience rating and PIR (i.e., injury reduction) actually triggering illegitimate claims management (academic research are identifies this dynamic). And the nature of this claims management disadvantages small- and medium-sized employers (who can’t afford to both pay for workers’ compensation and also set up a parallel system to circumvent it) as well as workers (who are pressured not to exercise their rights to compensation).

As I said, a fascinating glimpse into OHS from the perspective of small- and medium-sized employers. I may excerpt from further correspondence (we’ll see how it goes).

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 12, 2011

How the '70s can inform present protest movements

My colleague Ingo Schmidt has recently published an article entitled “There were alternatives: Lessons from efforts to advance beyond Keynesian and Neoliberal economic policies on the 1970s” in WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labour and Society.

This article examines the critique of capitalist structures that developed in the 1970s and how Neoliberalism became the “obvious” solution following the economic crises of the mid-‘70s.

The relevance of the article lies in its examination of how progressive movements failed to build an effective coalition to advance their agenda(s). This analysis may be of interest to those studying the various resistance movements that have developed in the wake of the 2008 recession.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 8, 2011

More on the safety of young workers

I ran across a couple of more interesting articles about OHS and young workers while revising a paper. Both are from the International journal of occupational and environmental health.

In “The unique developmental considerations of youth related work injuries,” Sudhinaraset and Blum provide a useful outline the research on the physical and cognitive differences between youth and adult workers. These differences are often posited to contribute to the higher rate of injury typically seen among young workers.

In “A commentary on the unique development considerations of youth,” Breslin and Smith provide an interesting analysis of how the differences in the types of jobs youth hold account for a large portion of the differences in injury rates between adult and young workers. This raises the question of whether the cognitive differences between youth and adults (long posited to explain higher injury rates among youth) are really all that important given the labour market niche occupied by youth. Breslin and Smith also suggest that inexperience (which is distinct from, but often correlated with, age) may explain higher injury rates among young.

This commentary is important because it suggests that factors such as unfamiliarity with work tasks and unsafe work tasks may be more important that age-related cognitive differences in predicting injury. These generic factors are remediable through interventions (e.g., orientation, marketing campaigns, targeted inspection) that alter the context in which youth work.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More child labour research from Ontario

Working through some revisions on an article, I ran across this 2010 study from the Canadian journal of public health. “Workplace experiences of young workers in Ontario” documents the hours, duties and supervision/training of workers between 14 and 19.

The crux (lifted from the abstract) is:
…a substantial number of youth are working at least 20 hours per week when school is in session, and many reported having worked after 11 pm on a night before school. Young workers engaged in a variety of hazardous tasks, including heavy lifting, using sharp objects, working with hot equipment, or working around falling objects.

A small subset (7.5%) of teens had suffered an injury at work that was severe enough to cause them to miss a day of school or work or require medical attention. … Although regular check-ins were common, many youth (38%) said they had worked at least part of the day without supervision. Young females were most likely to work without supervision or to work alone. (p.380)
This study adds to the growing body of evidence regarding the prevalence of child labour in Canada and the risks Canadian children are exposed to in the workplace.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 5, 2011

OHS and ES experiences of young Ontario workers

Alan Hall and colleagues from the University of Windsor have released a preliminary report into the incidence of health and safety and employment standards violations and reporting among young workers (mostly between 16 and 24) in Ontario. This report contains a number of interesting findings related to workplace injury:

“Sixty-eight of the workers reported that they had performed unsafe work tasks in their current job and over 7% said that they had done this often or very often.” (p.3)

“Among the reasons given for performing or accepting unsafe work, the most commonly reported were: 1) they thought they could avoid injury by being careful (30.2%); 2) they thought it was just part of the job (24.9%); and, 3) they were worried about other potential negative reactions by their employers or supervisors (20.6%).” (p.4)

“With respect to injuries causing time off work, 87.5 % reported that they had never been injured, while 8.3 % cited one injury, 2.1 % two injuries and 2.1 % more than two. When asked if all or some of these injuries were reported officially to the Workplace Safety insurance Board, 62% of the workers (N= 27) indicate that one or more of their injuries was never reported even though the injury was serious enough to miss work.” (p.5)

There were also some interesting items related to employment standards:

The 439 respondents “reported 1129 violations across eleven different employment standards. … it is more than likely that this number significantly underestimates the actual number of violations, in as much as many workers have expressed to us that the category “three or more times” failed to capture many situations where the violations were routine and sometimes daily.” (p.8)

“Although the experience of violations is relatively widespread among the respondents, and some respondents have experienced multiple violations of several different standards, most workers with violations (65%) have never filed a complaint.” (p.9)

“With the exception of the minimum wage where 65% of the respondents answered correctly, only a small minority of the workers knew the other standards.” (p.10)

While only a preliminary report, the results suggest widespread noncompliance with statutory requirements. It also suggests that there are important differences between OHS and ES compliance.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 2, 2011

Forget me not

This summer I picked up a copy of Forget Me Not. This book is published by Threads of Life, an organization that helps families of workers killed on the job.

It contains about 20 stories of how workplace fatalities (or impending fatalities with a workplace cause) have affected the lives of family members left behind. These stories are a useful corrective to the transitory way the media typically handle fatalities.

-- Bob Barnetson