Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holiday break

With the university trying to make its books look better than they are by removing one-time liabilities before year end (because that will fix the structural deficit...), I've been forced to take the three days of holidays I've accrued starting tomorrow. 

I expect I'll pop in at least once during the holiday break: December 28 is when the government likes to quietly release the years occupational fatality numbers. Until then, I'll leave with a pretty picture and this poignant skit, where Santa makes the North Pole a right-to-work state.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 17, 2012

Are sex-injuries on a business trip compensable?

An Australian woman travelling on business and injured during sex, has finally won workers’ compensation benefits.  The interesting part of this is not the tawdry details (although I am as curious as the next guy how the light fixture got dislodged and landed on her face…), but rather the temporal and moral dimension of the case.

Workers’ compensation is designed to compensate injuries that arise out of and occur in the course of employment. Often the arises-and-occurs test is easy to apply: if you trip on a pallet at work, fall down and break your wrist, your injury clearly arose form and occurred during the course of employment.

Other times, this test is trickier to apply. Consider positional risk: if you are bitten by a cobra while walking through a park for a work purpose (maybe you empty garbage cans), the injury still arose and occurred even though everyone in the park was at risk of (the admittedly odd-ball) snake bite. Coverage occurs because, but for the employment, you would not have been in the park. 

Things get more interesting with travel. In Alberta, if you have an MVA on your way to work, it is unlikely you are covered under workers’ compensation. Unless you were performing a work-errand on your way to employment (and the, only for the duration of the errand), or travelling on an employer-controlled road or on employer-controlled transport. 

But if you are injured while “away” on an employer sanctioned trip (i.e., but for the trip, you would not have been in the hotel), are you covered? The rules in Alberta are a bit tighter than they appear to be Australia. In Alberta, you are covered during travel while fulfilling basic comfort needs, but not during recreational activities on an overnight trip. So sex injuries are likely to be deemed non-compensable.

I expect there will be a certain amount of ridicule of the Australian decision. We see similar reactions in Canada when an intoxicated worker is injured and gets compensation. This ridicule typically reflects a moral judgment (e.g., he was drunk and got what he deserved; she was loose—why should she get compensation?).

The purpose of workers’ compensation is not, however, to moralize. Rather, it is to award compensation within the rules set out by the WCB (whatever you may think of those rules). Should there be criminal activity (e.g., impaired driving), that is resolved via the criminal system, not via workers compensation. Otherwise, workers’ compensation should be blind to the moral dimensions of the injury.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tim Horton's in trouble of foreign worker treatment

The issue of the use and abuse of Canada's temporary foreign worker (TFW) program has been in the headlines quite a lot lately. In BC, a mining company is in trouble after it made speaking Mandarin a job requirement (likely in violation of the BC Human Rights Code), couldn't find any Canadian miners who speak Mandarin (cough, cough), and thus sought out a couple of hundred Chinese workers.

This morning, Tim Horton's is in the headlines with complaints about the treatment of TFWs in both Saskatchewan and BC. There is nothing surprising in these stories--guest workers are exploited by employers all over the world, including in Canada. What is interesting can be found in the comments section for these articles.

There is a growing understanding by readers that the "labour market shortage" argument advanced by governments and employers to justify TFWs is not as ironclad as it first appears. Several commenters are (implicitly) noting that higher wages tend to draw more workers into the workplace, thus a labour shortage exists only so long as present wage and working conditions continue. Higher wages or better working conditions can alleviate it without the need to resort to vulnerable migrant workers.

I'm not suggesting that there is widespread adoption of this line of thinking, but it is circulating and it is occurring more frequently in discussions around TFWs. My sense is that the public is about to put together the economic angle (companies use TFWs to suppress domestic wages) with the moral angle (TFWs are exploited and abused). They are also about to take note that the federal government is colluding with employers to limits domestic wages and abuse foreign nationals. That will become a significant public policy issue for the Harper government to manage in 2012.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Right to work laws in the US

Neil Macdonald wrote an interesting and very accessible piece today about US right-to-work laws, specifically considering Michigan's incoming law.

Right to work laws basically remove any requirement for workers who benefit from union contracts to pay dues or be members. They also remove the obligation of unionized employers to deduct dues from worker paycheques.

In effect, these laws undermine the financial security of the union. Unions are forced to spend resources chasing dues and representing free-riders, rather than seeking improved working conditions or political change beneficial to workers. Which is, of course, the point of "right-to-work" laws.

Combining right-to-work laws with the US preference for the employment-at-will doctrine and a loose labour market and you have a recipe for low-wage work.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 10, 2012

Justifying the exclusion of farm workers from OHS

The autumn edition of Socialist Studies is out and with it is my paper "No right to be safety: Justifying the exclusion of Alberta farm workers from health and safety legislations." This paper analyzes a decade of statements by government MLAs to justify the continued exclusion of farm workers from basic OHS rights that you and I take for granted--such as the right to be safe or the right to know about hazards in their workplace.

Three justificatory narratives emerge from the discussion: (1) education is better than regulation, (2) farms cannot be regulated, and (3) farmers don’t want and can’t afford regulation. Analysis of these narratives reveals them to be largely invalid, raising the question of why government members rely upon these narratives. The electoral rewards associated with maintaining this exclusion may comprise part of the explanation.

-- Bob Barnetson