Monday, March 26, 2012

Logistics and temporary work

The Huffington Post has an interesting feature article on the organization of logistics in American retail and the implications this has for workers. It highlights the impact that labour brokerage and outsourcing has on working conditions.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 23, 2012

Public policy according to PCL

The head of PCL Construction (Paul Douglas) is making waves about altering the Alberta Labour Relations Code and other public policy. He suggests:

1. More training for workers nation wide.

2. Policies that encourage unemployed workers in other parts of the country to move to Alberta.

3. Changes to the labour code to allow “alternative unions” to operate in Alberta.

This all sounds good—until you think about it for a minute. What Douglas is basically suggesting is:

1. The taxpayers should pay more to train workers so companies don’t have to bear this cost. Why should taxpayer subsidize profitable corporations? And who benefits from lower training costs? Oh wait, PCL does.

2. The government should economically pressures families to uproot and come to Alberta to loosen up the labour market and, thereby, lessen workers’ ability to ask for higher wages or demand safer working conditions. Why should families be disrupted to enrich shareholders? And who benefits from lower wages? Oh wait, PCL does.

3. Change labour laws to allow unions such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada (which is widely regarded as “employer friendly”) to displace traditional trade unions. Why should unions chosen by workers be pushed aside in favour of those which employers prefer to deal with? And who benefits from weaker unions? Oh wait, PCL does.

In effect, Douglas’ (self-interested) prescription is not really about solving a labour shortage, but rather about trying to convince governments to help companies be maximally profitable, regardless of how it affects workers (lower wages, no safety net) or taxpayers (paying corporate training costs).

In this context, perhaps a labour shortage is a small price to pay for just and equitable social policy?

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, March 19, 2012

Will older workers solve the labour shortage? Part 2

Last spring, the government rolled out a new human resources strategy to meet the expected demand for workers in Alberta. One of the initiatives was encouraging older workers to remain in or return to the workforce. As I wrote at the time, this policy statement seemed to be mostly wishful thinking.

Post-Media has started a series on the use of older workers. Today’s article raises a number of questions, the most important being whether employers really want older workers?
But will employers want older workers around? Already, the aging workforce is forcing organizations to wrestle with such uncomfortable issues as seniors' ability to keep up with job demands, the degree to which physical or mental deterioration can compromise performance, and the cost to companies' bottom lines if a large segment of their staff is silver-aged.

"The older cohort will very likely be high users of expensive services, products and medical programs, which will put health-benefits costs through the roof," says Mike Cuma, a human-resources expert who predicts many organizations will be "unwilling or un-able" to meet the demands of such a shift.
This will be an interesting series to follow.

-- Bob Barnetson

Air Canada sick out

I was on both CBC Edmonton and Calgary this morning discussion what appears to be a sick-out by Air Canada pilots on the weekend which contributed to flight delays and cancellation. The Calgary interview (the better of the two) is available here. Good heavens it is hard to be coherent at 6 am!

The short version is that Air Canada is involved in a contract dispute with its pilots and was set to lock them out. The feds intervened and have passed legislation sending this dispute to arbitration. You can follow this dispute and get a more nuanced analysis on David Doorey’s blog.

The federal legislation is fairly odious. It allows the government to pick the arbitrator. When the feds legislated an end to the postal strike, they appointed an arbitrator who did not know anything about labour relations and did not speak the language of those involved in the dispute. The federal court slapped the government around pretty badly for that. So, rather than acting reasonably, the Tories passed legislation depriving the court of the ability to review the arbitrator’s appointment.

The legislation also forces the arbitrator to take into account the “terms and conditions of employment of other airlines.” Air Canada pays its pilots better than its competitors so the federal government is basically legislating a pay cut.

Finally, the legislation directs the arbitrator to consider the “short- and long-term economic viability of the employer”. This tells the arbitrator that a company’s bottom line is more important than paying its employees a fair wage.

Workers aren’t stupid. They know this process is stacked against them—thus the sick out (if indeed that is what it was).

The sick out raises some fascinating questions because there are two competing legal regimes here. Air Canada has indicated it will be complaining to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board. The Canada Labour Code says there shall be no illegal strikes. A sick-out is pretty clearly a strike under the Code.

But, the Canadian Aviation Regulations require pilots to declare themselves unable to fly if they are suffering or are likely to be suffering from fatigue or are otherwise unfit to perform their duties. The dilemma for the CIRB is whether it will order the pilots back to work, given the potential safety risk if the pilots are indeed unfit to fly. Indeed, I think it is an open question whether the CIRB even has the jurisdiction to order pilots to work given the public safety dimension,

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Details of AUPE hospital support agreement

After a one-day wildcat strike last month, AUPE and Alberta Health Services have worked out a tentative contract. The details include:

* 3.0% increases in each year of the three-year deal
* shift premium improvements
* a health spending account of $600 per year
* additional vacation
* changes in language around layoffs, recall, hours of work and classification disputes.

In the context of bargaining in Alberta, this looks like a reasonable deal, with the first year being retro. It validates the utility of illegal strikes in embarrassing the government into moving. And this also established a useful template for the Health Sciences Association contract which is still being negotiated.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 8, 2012

New employment broker rules are pointless

The government announced tougher rules for employment agencies today. Employment agencies broker employment contracts between employers and job seekers. With the influx of temporary foreign workers, these agencies have become bigger players in the labour market.

Some workers have complained that some agencies have engaged in dodgy practices, such as charging workers fees for finding them jobs (a no-no) and misleading them about the terms of employment or the living conditions they will be provided with. These practices are part of the broader concerns raised by worker advocates about the exploitation of temporary foreign workers.

The government’s changes prohibit employment agencies from misleading
temporary foreign workers about their rights or their chance of becoming a Canadian citizen; pressure workers to lie to Canadian officials; intimidate or threaten individuals seeking work; or require workers to provide a performance bond.
There is no background in the news release explaining how often this occurs, but in 2009, Service Alberta reported 277 investigations into broker activities. My guess is, if the Government of Alberta is enacting a pro-worker regulation, there must be a real problem.

The question, though, is whether these regulations will make any difference?

Alberta already has clear legislation prohibiting things like charging workers to find a job, but these go largely unenforced because Alberta’s enforcement system is largely complaint-based. That is to say, workers (who often don’t speak the language, know their rights and are vulnerable to employer retribution) must figure out that they can complain, how to do so and whether the risk associated with complaining is worth it.

In deciding whether to complain, workers might well look at the government’s track record on dealing with complaints. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any readily available data on the government website but, between 2007 and 2009, the government issued seven orders and pursued one prosecution (you’ll recall there were 277 investigations ongoing in 2009).

The bulk of investigations in 2009 resulted in no formal action or were abandoned due to lack of evidence or an inability to pursue the broker. The AFL report I linked to above notes that:
The Alberta government has no jurisdiction to prosecute brokers who are not operating in the province nor can it go after Alberta employers who allow such fees.

Reports from foreign workers suggest the brokerage problem has actually gotten much worse. Brokers based in the home country frequently use threats of violence against the worker or their family to coerce full payment of the fees or to ensure the worker does not complain to authorities about the illegal charges. This prevents the bulk of illegal fees from ever being reported to authorities, either in Alberta or in the originating country.
Employers operating outside the country are still unaffected. I was not able to find a copy of the amended regulation online (???) so I can’t tell if it has expanded its scope to allow the government to go after employers who use brokers who, in turn, engage in illegal practices. But I doubt it.

While the press release talks tough (“…a maximum fine of $100,000 and up to two years in jail.”), the reality of employment protections in Alberta is that the government doesn’t proactively investigate and rarely bothers to prosecute violators.

The upshot is there’s little chance of getting caught and almost zero chance of a consequence. Not surprisingly, there are widespread violations of the laws.

This press release, then, is just smoke and mirrors. It is designed to make the government look good while fundamentally changing nothing on the ground.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Safety conviction in NS asbestos case

An interesting OHS court case came out of Nova Scotia last year. Basically some employees found attic insulation they thought might contain asbestos, the employer had it tested and found this to be the case but then the safety supervisor did not take any action, allowing the employees (and members of the public) to be exposed to this carcinogen for months more.

There are a couple of interesting angles to the case. The first is the case provides an inside look at how an organization with an appropriate OHS infrastructure can still drop the ball. This is relevant because many OHS systems (e.g., Alberta’s partners in injury reduction program) are mostly about having the right paperwork on file and the right system in place. Whether the system actually works is largely ignored and rarely assessed.

In this (not unusual) case, the safety supervisor (knowing better) just failed to act on credible information about an obvious hazard. Consequently, the other employees (who did the right things) are at higher risk of developing a wide variety of (generally fatal) asbestos-related diseases. The consequence for the supervisor? A $1000 fine. Interestingly, the Department of Community Services also got dinged $10,000.

The second is that, through its inaction, the employer exposed a significant number of tenants in the low-income housing unit to the asbestos in the attic (although the degree of the exposure is unknown). That is to say, this case shows that the distinction between occupational and environmental hazards is often artificial and meaningless.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 2, 2012

More on exporting asbestos

The CBC is reporting on a wikileak cable about Canada exporting asbestos to Vietnam. Canada and Vietnam voted against classifying asbestos as a hazardous substance last year.

The Canadian government has been indicating that asbestos is safe when used properly. That is a contestable claim on a number of levels. The most compelling criticism of exports is that developing countries simply don't have adequate capacity to enact basic protections. The US embassy in Hanoi assessed Vietnam's abilities in this regard as deficient:
Existing safety and health standards [in Vietnamese factories] are inadequate to protect worker health and few companies follow even these minimal standards….Vietnamese attempts to limit the health effects of asbestos seem doomed to fail due to lack of manufacturing and technical capacity, weak political will, and limited funding and investment.
The cable also notes that high rates of smoking (>50% of males 15 and up) will massively compound the health effect of asbestos exposure, both in the workplace and in homes where asbestos will be used as a roofing product.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 1, 2012

More on Occupy WCB

A few more pieces from the occupy WCB protest.

And a bunch of photos on flickr.

-- Bob Barnetson

BC teachers vote to strike

BC school teachers have voted to go on strike, after several months of working to rule. The main issue appears to be wages, with the province holding firm at a net zero settlement while the teachers are asking for 15%.

An interesting aspect of this strike is the teachers’ apparent plans to start with a three-day strike and then move to rolling strikes (one day per week). The BC Labour Relations Board has indicated that teachers must give two days of notice of each subsequent day of strike.

This tactic has a couple of interesting dimensions.

First, it is actually more inconvenient and disruptive than a continuing strike. Even with notice, parents and school boards will have difficulty coping with the on-again-off-again strike. Replacement workers and day programs won’t want to operate one (varying) day per week.

Second, by only being out one day per week, it is much harder for the government to justify back-to-work legislation under the Charter. The argument that children are being deprived of an education becomes almost impossible to make in these circumstances.

Third, the teachers can amp up the pressure by extending strikes to two days or full weeks any time they want. Strikes are often an all-or-nothing proposition for unions. This approach gives teachers an interesting degree of discretion. The employer could lock out the teachers to take this away, but then the employer look like the bad guy.

-- Bob Barnetson