Friday, June 29, 2012

Rona Ambrose supports trade unions?

I start my vacation at the end of this week so the blog will slow during July. But just in time for one last post is a bizarre tweet from Rona Ambrose (federal Minister of Public Works and Government Services and Minister for Status of Women) last night:
Rona Ambrose @MinRonaAmbrose@lornepw I want unions to step up and support women who work in low wage and part time jobs that need their representation.
Now I’m all for unions seeking to represent vulnerable and often-exploited workers. But I have some difficulty buying this sentiment from a minister in a government that has gone out of its way to weaken the labour movement by interfering with collective bargaining on behalf of employers for the past year.

This seems to be related somehow (and I admit I find it hard to hard to follow everything on Twitter) to a conversation about Andrew Coyne’s article in the National Post yesterday cheerleading an Ontario Tory white paper that advocates ending the Rand formula.

The Rand formula allows unions to collect dues from every worker in a bargaining unit, even if a worker is not a union member. This formula prevents free-riding, whereby workers could not pay union dues but still receive the benefits of union contracts. The Rand formula differs from a closed shop, where membership is required; under Rand, you only need pay dues, not be a member.

Also in this white paper is the notion that workers’ compensation could be partly privatized in some industries. This is simply a wacka-doodle suggestion. I’ve covered this topic in my book (starting on page 161). 

Privatization can mean a lot of different things. But the basic arguments against privatizing workers’ compensation is that there is almost no evidence that it saves anyone any money (i.e., it is not more efficient) and doing so pressurizes insurers to grind the compensation of injured workers (compensating injured workers being the notional purpose of workers’ comp…).

The only group that wins when workers’ compensation is privatized are insurance companies who can now access a whole new market.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Deadbeat employer website now up

The Government of Alberta has set up a website identifying deadbeat employers—those who owe workers wages. There are about 1700 employers listed on the website and they collectively owe 3500 workers nearly $14 million. 

Publically embarrassing employers for breaking the law is an excellent (and cost-effective) enforcement tactic. That said, Alberta’s first stab at this does not go far enough because it only shows employers who owe wages (the deadbeat employers).

It doesn’t tell us which employers shorted workers wages but then paid up when they got busted. And it doesn’t tell us which employers made workers work too many days in a row or hired children illegally.

In that way, this website doesn’t do anything about the real problem facing employment standards—which is there is no disincentive for breaking the law. In fact, the reverse is true. Employers have an incentive to break the law—which is saving some money—because the worst consequence they face is having to pay what they should have paid in the first place.

There are several ways this effort could be improved. The government could name every employer who violates any part of the employment standards code each month and tell us what they did. That creates an immediate and embarrassing consequence for the employer. Just telling us who the deadbeats are doesn’t help—these employers clearly don’t care one way or the other and may not even be in business any more (as the list goes back 10 years).

A second solution is fining employers for violating the law. That creates an actual incentive for employers to comply with the law because they’ll be financially punished when they break it.

A third solution is increasing the number of random inspections each year. Right now, employment standards is mostly complaint-driven. Complaint-driven systems basically don’t work. A US study found 130 overtime pay violations for every complaint filed-- some industries have up to 800 violations per complaint. We see similar rates of non-reporting in other Canadian jurisdictions.

By contrast, random inspections unearth all manner of non-compliance and ensure that the law is actually followed. Right now we see a small number of random inspections. Under a 1000 a year is the number I’ve heard, but I can’t substantiate that anywhere because the government doesn’t disclose that information. With 140,000 employers and over 2 million workers, there is basically no chance of an employer getting caught breaking the law and no real penalty if they do get caught.

Along with the deadbeat employer website, the government has rolled out a series of new videos about how to comply with employment standards. Education is nice and all, but bundling the deadbeat website together with education frames violations as rooted in ignorance. This is a nice storyline for a pro-employer government and is likely necessary to get buy in from the Minister and caucus. But it obscures that employer greed is also a factor in violations—a big factor.

Consider SSEC Canada Inc., a subsidiary of a Chinese company. It owes about $3.5m to a variety of Chinese nationals who were brought to Alberta to work in 2009. The government discovered this money was owed when it was investigating a pair of fatalities in Fort McMurray. And the employer clearly bilked its workers out of their pay—pay the government hasn’t collected and (in the Legislature) admitted it will likely never collect. 

Education can’t remedy that. Only penalizing employers for violating the law can.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Farm Workers' Union makes interesting argument

I’m reading a new book about the Fraser case (farm worker organizing) by Fay Faraday, Judy Fudge and Eric Tucker and quite enjoying it. Perhaps a quick run down will follow as I get further into the book.cCoincidentally, I got an email from the Alberta Farm Workers' Union (FWU) on Friday. 

They note that Bill C-45 (the Westray amendment to the Criminal Code) is slowly (very slowly) becoming more widely known and (gasp!) used in Canada to prosecute employers for worker fatalities. Indeed, a construction company in Ontario has just pleaded guilty to one charge of criminal negligence causing the death of four workers who died on Christmas Eve, 2009. At the same time, the President of the company pleaded guilty to four charges. Sentencing is still underway but the dollar values are much higher than in previous cases. 

But back to the FWU’s press release. The crux of their message is that, because most farms and ranches are excluded from the ambit of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, these employers are more likely to face charges under the Criminal Code for worker deaths than employers who are covered by the OSHA (who are typically prosecuted under its provisions in Alberta). Similarly, most farms operate without the liability shield that (presently optional) workers’ compensation coverage would give them thus they may face civil suits for farm workers deaths.

The FWU goes on to suggest that it is in the interests of farmers to work with the government towards the inclusion of farms and ranches in the OHSA to reduce the risks associated with criminal prosecution. The FWU also appears to be suggesting that farmers cooperate with efforts to extend mandatory WCB coverage to farms to reduce the risk of civil suits for injuries.

This press release is fascinating on three levels.

First, the argument put forward by the FWU is more savvy than their previous efforts. They are attempting to lessen resistance among rural communities to extending basic workplace rights to farm workers by making an economic argument farmers may agree with. The timing is good, because (1) the premier appears to be progressive and not as tightly wed to the old boy network in Alberta (although time will tell) and (2) the policy salience of the rural vote just declined because so much of the south went Wild Rose in the recent election. So good on the FWU.

Second, the FWU’s argument is basically that a farmer should seek to hide from a big Criminal Code fine for killing a worker by locking into the low-fine/no-prosecution regime of the OHSA. That is to say, Alberta’s OHS record suggests it is cheaper to kill workers under it than under the Criminal Code.

Wow, what an argument. 

It is not often a labour group adopts such a blunt cost-benefit analysis when discussing worker fatalities. This is not to say the FWU is wrong—the financial risks associated with OHSA prosecutions are very small while the risks under the Criminal Code are basically unknown in Alberta. Compounded with the risks associated with a civil suit, and coverage under workers’ compensation and OHS starts to look pretty good if you are risk-averse. But wow, what an argument.

Third, the FWU is suggesting that prosecution under the Criminal Code is a real possibility in Alberta.
“(Bill C-45) has now arrived in Alberta. The Alberta Federation of Labour has written an open letter to Alberta's Justice Minister, the Honourable Jonathan Denis advising of the existence of this law. I had an opportunity May 30 2012 to sit down with Alberta's Justice Minister in his office and discuss at length and in some detail C-45 and it's impact on the Alberta Ag industry. The Minister of Justice then was asked on the floor of the House during QP about C-45 and the Alberta Ag industry and he stated " Let me assure this House that my ministry doesn't hesitate to pursue criminal charges where the investigation indicates that it is warranted" (Hansard May 31 2012 pg 127)”
On the one hand, it is nice to see the Minister of Justice agreeing that prosecution in an option when warranted. On the other hand, the history of prosecutions for workplace deaths in Alberta is pretty dismal with few prosecutions compared to other jurisdictions

Is it realistic to expect Alberta will suddenly start prosecuting under a 2004 amendment to the Criminal Code when they’ve show little appetite to prosecute under the OHSA all these years?

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, June 18, 2012

TFWs used as scabs at seniors care centre?

About 100 LPNs and nursing aids represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees have been striking the Hardisty Care Centre (a privately-operated, 180-bed senior centre) since May 20th.

Collective bargaining has been going on since November 2011, with a mediator and dispute resolution board (DIB) both recommending the employer pay industry-standard wages (currently the employer is paying about 30 percent less than workers in publically operated seniors facilities make). The employer has declined to do so.

This has led some to speculate that the employer is using the first round of collective bargaining to basically refight the certification battle AUPE won. Alberta currently does not have first-contract arbitration, thus employers sometimes stall signing a first agreement in hopes of breaking the union’s support.

AUPE has been very public about the strike, suggesting that the employer (Park Place) is using tax dollars intended to pay for staff to enhance its profit margins. According to AUPE president Guy Smith:
“The bottom line for all of them is that Park Place Seniors is funded by Alberta taxpayers to pay industry rates for the medical staff here Alberta taxpayers should be concerned that money that’s supposed to be paying front-line staff is going into the profit margins of Park Place.” 
This is quite an interesting angle of attack, trying to draw supporters of public health care (and fair play in general) into supporting the strike. 

AUPE upped the ante last week, filing a complaint that the employer was illegally using temporary foreign workers (TFWs) as scabs. Using TFWs is prohibited when 
“the specific work that the foreign national intends to perform is likely to adversely affect the settlement of any labour dispute in progress or the employment of any person involved in the dispute.”
The purpose of this restriction is to prevent TFWs (whose residence in the country effectively depends upon their employers good will) from being coerced into crossing a picket line on the orders of their employer.  The employer has carefully danced around this complaint, in part because getting busted for violating the TFWs rules might well endanger the employer’s ability to receive permission to hire additional TFWs in the future.

There appear to be a number of disputes brewing in seniors care. AUPE members are also striking Revera Riverbend Retirement Residence (again wages are the issue) and employees at Devonshire Care Centre (run by the same company the owns Hardisty) held information pickets about their bargaining. In Calgary, workers at Monterey Place Assisted Living will soon take a strike vote while workers at Newport Harbour Care Centre (again, owned by Park Place) are starting collective bargaining.

This pattern may indicate a concerted effort by AUPE to whipsaw employers at private-sector seniors lodges into paying wages on par with public-sector employers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 15, 2012

Spinning Alberta's minimum wage increase

Back in late May, Alberta announced that it would be increasing the minimum wage in September, with the general minimum wage rising from $9.40 an hour to $9.75. The minimum wage for servers of hooch will stay at $9.05. 

I’d didn’t blog about this increase, in part because I just quickly skimmed the government press release. One of the sentences that I should have read more carefully was this one:
“After taxes, Alberta’s new general minimum wage of $9.75 per hour will rank second in Canada.”
Like I imagine most people did, I read the “rank second in Canada” part, when “huh” and moved on. Yet, I just read an email from the Alberta Federation of Labour that caused me to go back through and read the “after taxes” part.
It does appear to be true that, after taxes, Alberta has the second highest minimum wage. But, before taxes, Alberta has the second lowest minimum wage.

I’m not sure which interpretation is preferable. In either case, these workers end up earning poverty-level wages and will struggle to house and feed themselves and their families. You can view a profile of minimum-wage earners here. They are not all teenagers, as we are often led to believe.

What annoys me is the crass spin-doctoring. Attempting to frame the second lowest minimum wage as the second highest is clearly an attempt to make a bad news story look like good news. When governments do this, they lose credibility. This constant fudging of the truth to protect politicians from justifiable flak was one of the reason I left government.

On a related note, Public Interest Alberta has released some StatCan data suggesting that 25% of Alberta workers (about 419,000 people) earn less than $15 an hour. Relatively few of these workers are teenagers, with more than half being over aged 25 and 60% being women. 

In February, Vibrant Calgary released a report on poverty in Alberta which suggests at least 300,000 Albertans lived in poverty in 2009, including 73,000 children (up 40% over 2008). Last November, Public Interest Alberta, the Edmonton Social Planning Council and the Alberta College of Social Workers released similar numbers

So is a 35-cent minimum-wage increase really all that much good news?

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Foreign Migrant Workers in Alberta

Foreign Migrant Workers in Alberta
Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster, Athabasca University
Canadian Political Science Association 84th Annual Convention
Edmonton, June 13, 2012

Good afternoon. I’m Bob Barnetson and I’m a prof at Athabasca University. This afternoon I’m going to present a short overview of a paper my colleague Jason Foster and I put together describing the use and impact of temporary foreign workers in Alberta. 

In 2011, there were 58,000 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Alberta, comprising about 3% of the labour force. There is also an unknown number of non-status migrants—illegal migrants—often TFWs whose work permits have expired. Anecdotally, the number of non-status migrants is between 50,000 and 100,000—meaning migrant workers comprise up to 8% of Alberta’s labour force.

This is important because what we’ve seen over the past 10 years is the creation of a large and seemingly permanent class of guest workers who are concentrated in low-skill jobs—cashiers, clerk, labourers, truck drivers. And this has significant implications for the workplace rights of both the TFWs and Canadian workers.

Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Alberta
It is well established that migrant workers are more vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace than workers who hold Canadian citizenship. TFWs in Canada have very constrained labour mobility—their permits specify the employer they can work for as well as the location and occupation of the TFW. This means TFWs’ residency in Canada is highly dependent upon the continued good will of their employers because TFWs have no meaningful opportunity to seek other work should their employer terminate them.

This limited labour mobility compounds the effect of other characteristics common among TFWs. These include limited knowledge of Canadian laws, institutions and labour markets as well as social isolation, language barriers and limited financial resources. What this means is that TFWs are often unable and/or reluctant to file complaints against their employers or labour brokers because of their vulnerability to reprisal. A lack of complaints is highly problematic as Alberta’s labour standards and workplace safety systems are mostly complaint-driven systems.

The Alberta Federation of Labour has documented the exploitation of TFWs by employers in Alberta. Typically this entails unpaid wages and overtime, unsafe work, contractual and statutory breaches, and horrendous living conditions. To give you some sense of the scale of this exploitation, 74% of Alberta workplaces employing TFWs that were inspected in 2009 were found to be in breach of one or more employment standards.

While the exploitation of TFWs is not an explicit goal of the TFW program, it is consistent with the broad purpose of the program—which is to allow employers to access relatively inexpensive and docile labour. Exploitation is simply employers taking advantage of well known weaknesses in the federal government’s TFW program and in the provincial government’s enforcement of employment laws (or lack thereof).

Rationalizing Temporary Foreign Workers
The discourse around TFWs in Alberta is complex. While it is a federal program, the majority of issues that are raised around exploitation fall into provincial jurisdiction. Looking through both Hansard transcripts and press coverage since 2000, Jason and I identified three main narratives that Alberta politicians use to manage the message around TFWs: TFWs are necessary to deal with a labour shortage, TFWs pose no threat to the employment of Canadian workers, and TFWs face no threat of exploitation. I’d like to flesh out these narratives a bit in the time we have.

First, Alberta MLAs rationalize the growth of TFWs as the only possible response to Alberta’s labour shortage. While Alberta did experience a tight labour market during the 2000s, TFWs were not the only solution. The labour market may have returned to equilibrium as rising wages attracted more workers and/or employers reduced demand for workers. The government could also have moderated the pace of tar sands development as well as provincial infrastructure spending, thereby dampening labour demand.
There were also significant number of interprovincial migrants as well as groups of Albertans largely excluded from the labour force (e.g., aboriginal Albertans) who could have been attracted and/or retained—who instead were displaced by TFWs. Interestingly, MLAs continued to advocate for TFWs during the recent recession, despite rising domestic unemployment. This lends credence to the suggestion that government support for TFWs is about loosening the labour market to drive down wages.

Second, MLAs asserted that TFWs don’t threaten Canadian jobs. MLAs say the federal labour market opinion (LMO) system only allows TFWs when there are no qualified Canadian workers available. This overstates the rigor of the LMO system. The federal government does not meaningfully verify employer applications and employers have admitted to gaming the LMO system by undertaking superficial recruitment exercises.

MLAs say TFWs are more expensive than domestic workers. Given the widespread violation of TFW contracts, it is not clear that this is indeed the case. And MLAs say TFWs will return to their home country if the demand for labour slackens. Yet, during the recent recession, the overall “stock” of TFWs in Alberta did not decline significantly and employers retained TFWs when laying off Canadian workers.

Finally, MLAs argue that employers cannot exploit TFWs because TFWs have the same rights as Canadian workers. As documented by the AFL, this is clearly not true. Migrant workers face a variety of barriers to realizing their rights. Indeed, both TFWs and Canadian workers in Alberta face widespread violations of their employment rights because provincial enforcement is weak to non-existent. When this became clear, there were minor regulatory adjustments (e.g., unenforceable restrictions on recruiting fees) and educational initiatives aimed at employers and TFWs (e.g., a TFW “hotline”).

Effect of Growing Migrancy on Democracy
The growing use of TFWs has a number of potentially negative effects on democracy (using the term loosely) in Alberta. At present, between 3 and 8% of Alberta workers have no political voice because they are not citizens. In this way, lawmakers are largely unaccountable to foreign migrant workers. One implication of this dynamic is that there both are few political consequences associated with continuing the exploitation of these workers and there are few political rewards associated with protecting them. Not surprisingly, both employers and the Conservative government expect an increase in the number of TFWs during the next five years. This suggests that Alberta will have a large, vulnerable and growing group of workers with no political relationship to the state in which they work.

The growing use of foreign migrant workers also creates a two-tiered labour market, populated by citizen-workers and non-citizen-workers. The poor treatment of TFWs undermines the notion that there are basic labour and human rights that governments must meet and enforce for all citizens. TFWs are not the only target for such treatment. The government has moved to expand the secondary labour market by making child labour increasingly accessible to employers in Alberta, particularly in the restaurant and food services industry.

There has been relatively little research on the impact of TFWs on Alberta workplaces. There is evidence that TFWs displaced inter-provincial migrants as the source of new workers in Alberta prior to the recent recession. And there is evidence that TFWs displaced Canadians workers during the recent recession, particularly in low-skill work. In this way, TFWs are being used to expand the labour market and thereby possibly containing or even driving down wages in some sectors. This effect may be intensified by the federal government’s recent announcement that employers can pay some TFWs up to 15% less than the median wage rate in their region.

There is also anecdotal evidence of employers using the threat of replacement by TFWs as a means by which to grind working conditions of Canadians—such as forcing a crew of scaffolders to accept a lousy shift schedule or be replaced by migrants. There is also a significant body of evidence that the employment rights of TFWs are being violated, generally with impunity. The may be engendering a bit of broken-window syndrome, whereby violations of employment standards, unionization and workplace safety rights become the norm—both for TFWs and Canadian workers.

A subtler effect of growing migrancy is that the state is increasingly ceding control over immigration to industry. The expansion of provincial nominee programs (wherein employers nominate workers to permanent residency) means that an increasing portion of newcomers are being selected based upon their utility to industry, rather than other factors (e.g., refugee status, non-employment desirability, family reunification).

Beyond labour policy, the presence of significant numbers of differentially excluded residents weakens the social cohesion important for healthy democratic communities. For the migrant workers, their contingent presence in the community and their possession of only partial citizenship rights marginalizes them from important community participation.

This form of marginalization, in turn, undermines the development of shared values, equal opportunity, trust and reciprocity—those things that are important in building cohesive communities. Indeed, the presence of TFWs as economic competitors to Canadian workers, without accompanying social and political commonalities, can cause permanent residents to see migrant workers as part of the “other” whose interests are in competition to and in conflict with their own, thus undermining any potential for social solidarity.

I think I’d like to stop here to preserve some time for questions… or speeches or personal attacks. Thanks kindly for your time.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 8, 2012

No-zero grading policies and workplace safety

I usually try to keep these blog posts to employment issues, but I find myself compelled to comment on the “no zero” policy debate currently going on within (and around) the Edmonton Public School Board.

The gist is that a high-school teacher was suspended for failing to comply with a policy prohibiting him from giving a student a zero on an incomplete assignment, even after giving the student multiple opportunities to hand in the assignment.

Cue public outrage and a spirited debate.

An interesting dynamic I see is that there are really two discussions going on. One discusses the technical merits of the policy. This debate focuses on whether a zero is an accurate (rather than adequate) response to failing to complete an assignment. That is to say, experts are defending the policy as an effort to distinguish intellectual achievement from behaviour. 

Defenders also emphasize the are multiple reasons why students might not turn in an assignment. For example, in today’s Journal, a defender of the no-zero policy discusses a good student, driven by family poverty to work and thus consider dropping out because she could never complete all of the assignments.  This is a sympathetic story. Yet, I don’t think the solution to family poverty lies with child labour and a “no zero” grading policy… .

The other side of the debate is effectively a political discussion about public support for a policy that appears to not hold students accountable for failing to complete assigned work. The gist is that, in “the real world”, if you don’t do your work, you get canned (unless you're a CEO...).  Employers don’t bother to distinguish between achievement and behaviour and we should acculturate students to that reality.

There are merits to both sides of this argument (I give zeros, for what it is worth).

My sense is that this policy is going to go down in flames, in large part because the EPSB has ignored that policy making is both a technical act and a political one. Often technically optimal decisions are political disasters. In a small group of like-minded people, such political considerations can be overlooked (or dismissed, often with distain).

This happens all the time in employment situations. My own employer offers a good (or bad) example. We’re a distributed workplace (i.e. most of us work from home). This aids in recruitment, saves about $3500 per year per person in office space, and I can wear my bath… errr… “academic robe” to work.

The university recently announced all teleworkers would need to sign a new “home office checklist” that focuses on workplace safety. Those who don’t comply (presumably) will jeopardize their teleworking status (although where would the university put us all if we decided to come to work?).

The checklist is fascinating. On the surface, it appears quite reasonable (i.e., makes technical sense to an HR person who doesn’t work from home). But some thought immediately identifies a number of issues. In no particular order:
  1. Workers are expected to post emergency numbers and an evacuation plan in their home offices. Do I really need to write down the number for 911? Do I really need to diagram an evacuation plan that is “go out the front door” (which I can see from my desk)?
  2. Workers are expected to have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as well as fire extinguishers in their offices. I have these things in my house, but the detectors are near the bedrooms (because smoke and the effects of CO are evident if you are awake) and the fire extinguisher is near the stove (the primary fire hazard in the house).  The policy requires me to either buy additional equipment (which the employer will not pay for) or move existing equipment (making my home less safe!).
  3.  I am required to have a Type 1 first aid kit in my home. The key difference between a Personal and a Type 1 kit is a resuscitation mouth-piece with one-way valve. Teleworkers work alone and cannot resuscitate themselves (unless my understanding of anatomy is out of date).
  4.  I must periodically contact my supervisor to tell her I’m not dead. For those home workers who live alone, there is some merit to this. The majority of home workers, though, live with someone. Having me phone my supervisor during each shift to say “I’m not dead yet” is a ridiculous requirement. If I don't call in, is she going to mount a rescue (from her home office)? If I'm truly dead, what will it matter? And the list goes on… .

Setting aside the practical issues I’ve raised, this policy makes good technical sense for the employer. We sign it and the employer limits its liability for injury.

Politically, though, this is new policy is a disaster. While the employer is telling us safety is important, the employer is also telling us that our safety is not important enough for the employer to pay for it (listen carefully for the sound of morale dropping--it's the screaming sound you hear). 

Coupled with the impractical requirements, the vast majority of my colleagues are simply ignoring this requirement. Issuing orders that people won’t follow is stupid because it weakens the employer’s authority--which is already pretty shaky.

In this way, my employer has made the same mistake as the EPSB—it has implemented a policy that almost anyone could have predicted would be rejected by those whom it affects. Such public bumbling damaged the organization’s credibility. This is an important lesson for HR and policy wonks everywhere.

-- Bob Barnetson

Adios fair wages and hours of work...

Part of the Harper government’s federal omnibus bill apparently contains a repeal of the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act.  This act requires federal contractors performing construction, remodeling, renovation of demolition work to pay wages consistent with the wages earned by others in the jurisdiction and limit overtime and require and overtime premium.

The omnibus bill will also removed federal contractors from the ambit of the Employment Equity Act.  This act requires such contractors to not discriminate against workers and, specifically, to remedy long-standing forms of discrimination, such as systemically lower wages for women.

Repealing these laws is part of a broader attack on the rights and wages of workers and are designed to cheapen labour for employers. In this case, the federal government appears to be saying that it is fine for taxpayer dollars to be given to companies engage in regressive employment practices that target traditionally vulnerable groups (I’m paraphrasing, of course…).

Is it any wonder the NDP are now just as popular as the Conservative party among voters?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Record OHS fine uncollectible thus meaningless

The Edmonton Journal is reporting a $2.4 million occupational health and safety fine against a pair of construction companies stemming from a 2008 fatality. A 15-metre high wall of dirt and rocks, which the companies knew to be unstable and decided not to shore up, collapsed on the worker.

Perera Development Corp. was dinged $1,437,500 while Perera Shawnee Ltd was hit for $1,035,000 for a total of $2,472,500 on 12 charges under the OHS Code. Company owner Don Perera still faces 10 similar charges.

The previous record OHS fine was $500,000. That said, both Perera companies are now bankrupt and there is no chance the province will collect any monies from this fine. That is to say, no real penalty was levied here. The employer did not even attend court to hear the victim impact statements.

The government’s response to this, according to spokesperson Barry Harrison, is:
"If this sets a threshold which future construction companies must follow, then it's a good thing.

"Maybe not all is lost. Maybe family and friends can take some satisfaction that it's a strong message to other companies that this won't be tolerated."

What I (continue to) see is relatively few inspections, no consequence for unsafe worksites, few prosecutions and no ability to make fines stick to employers no matter how negligent they are. The real message is that it remains open season on Alberta workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, June 4, 2012

EI reforms designed to cheapen labour

I was on Alberta PrimeTime Friday night chatting about proposed changes to Employment Insurance (EI). You can try to view the segment here (EDIT: the video now works). 

The gist of the proposed changes are that EI claimants will be required to take jobs at lower wages than they used to make or they will have their benefits cut off. Over time, the wage cut required will increase from 10% to 30%. EI claimants will also be required to accept commutes of up to an hour or they will have their benefits cut off. 

An important rationale for the changes is that there’s a skill shortage.  However, forcing unemployed workers to take low-wage jobs won’t make those workers more skilled. It just makes workers cheaper. And I think that is the actual policy goal of these reforms,

Cheapening labour by putting more workers in the workforce is evident in other federal policy changes. For example, pushing back old age security eligibility keeps poor seniors in the workforce longer. Shortening the processing time on temporary foreign worker applications means employers can bring in foreign labour more quickly and easily (and now pay them up to 15% less than the going rate). Legislating an end to work stoppages undermines the ability of unions to defend things like decent pay and pension plans. All of these changes are a significant boon to employers at the expense of workers.

There is some suggestion that some EI claimants are habitual users of the EI system. This is likely true (particularly in regions with seasonal economies) but is often framed as a moral failing of the claimants, rather than a function of no jobs being available. While I think it can be fun to cast aspersions on the work ethic of others (e.g., jet-setting executives driving their organizations into bankruptcy, cough, cough), but the government’s own evidence suggests the level of EI fraud in low.

The Minister stated the new rules will cause less than 1% of recipients will lose benefits. If the EI fraud rate is only 1%, then why make major changes that negatively affect all EI claimants? I think the answer is that EI fraud is just a smoke-screen—the purpose of this policy is to cheapen labour by pressuring claimants to take low wage jobs.

It is important to remember that workers on EI didn’t quit their jobs—their employer laid them off. And the maximum benefit under the program is $485 a week (not the $435 a week I mentioned in the news clip—my memory tends to go when I get pissed off)—nearly $150 less than in 1996. The average benefit is actually about $350 a week. This is hardly an inducement to stay on EI if you have any other options.

And, for most EI claimants, they haven’t any other option. There are nearly six unemployed Canadians for every job vacancy. If the government wants people off EI, maybe employers and the government should create some jobs, instead of beating up on the unemployed?

One of the more interesting stats I heard on the show (that I’m still trying to run down) is that there are 30,000 open jobs in Alberta. This kind of stat is often used to invoke the bogey-man of the labour shortage (which, in turn, legitimizes all manner of other public policy change—typically favouring employers). Yet, in April 2012, there were about 111,000 unemployed Albertans (4.9%). So it sounds like there is a jobs shortage, not a labour shortage… .

Something we didn’t get into on Alberta PrimeTime was that the federal government is also scrapping its current appeal system. The existing system sees 1000 referees and umpires handle about 26,000 EI appeals a year. These will all now be funneled to a 74-member multipurpose appeal tribunal dealing with EI, CPP and OAS.

Under the current system, appeals were heard within 30 days and decided within a week. Workers could simply tell their story to people in their community. The new quasi-judicial system of appeal is bound to be slower and will make it harder for claimants to represent themselves.

This is going to drive people onto welfare, thereby downloading costs from the federal government to provincial governments. It will also drive people to food banks and in the streets.

-- Bob Barnetson