Thursday, October 22, 2015

Regulatory capture: Trading worker's health for profit

Two weeks ago, a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada was published by Athabasca University Press. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press.

My own chapter entitled “Worker safety in Alberta: Trading health for profit” examines how the former Conservative government undermines workers’ rights to safe workplaces in order to privilege the interests of employers. The story is a bit winding and includes a concerted effort to weaken Alberta’s labour movement and also appease rural interests to maintain electoral support.

I think the most interesting part of the chapter is the discussion of regulatory capture of Alberta OHS system.
Regulatory capture occurs when a state agency designed to act in the public interest instead acts to advance the interests of an important stakeholder group in the sector its regulates (Shapiro 2012). Regulatory capture occurs when groups with a significant stake in the outcome of regulatory decisions aggressively seek to gain advantageous policy outcomes. Focused efforts are often successful, because the public (who individually have only a small stake in the outcome) tend to ignore regulatory decision making.

Under a situation of regulatory capture, the dominant stakeholder group can then use the captured regulator to impose costs on other stakeholders, even if such costs are contrary to the public interest. Captured regulators may see themselves as partners of the captors they are supposed to regulate and may even find themselves financed by that group (p. 236).
It is important to recognize that regulatory capture is a contested concept (there are competing definitions and approaches). That said, there is ample evidence to suggest that it had occurred in Alberta’s occupational health and safety system under the Tory regime. The evidence includes the state:
  • ineffectively regulating workplace safety, 
  • deeming employers to be “partners” in regulation, 
  • being reliant on employer funding of regulatory activity, 
  • allowing employers preferential access to policy making, 
  • enacting policies that reward the appearance of safety rather than safety itself, and 
  • promulgating a narrative that blames another stakeholder (i.e. , workers) for workplace injuries.
The key policy question going forward is what changes the New Democratic government might make to the operation of the occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation systems that might reverse this capture.

-- Bob Barnetson

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