Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Research: Psychological OHS risks for long-term care workers

Ageing International just recently published an article about the experiences of Canadian long-term care workers with psychological health and safety on the job provocatively entitled “We’re told, ‘Suck it up’.”  The article examines the experiences of workers in four provinces with work overload, low worker control, discrimination, and disrespect.

Interviews with 87 staff at eight long-term care homes (two each in BC, MB, ON, and NS) were used in the study. The research revealed that workers face significant psychological harm from unremediated hazards, employers and regulators don’t “see” the hazards causing the harm very clearly, and workers are largely left to deal with things on their own (which is itself a psychological hazard).

The voices of the study participants are powerful. They clearly note that employer staffing decisions take a significant toll on both the staff and on patient care.

[W]e’re told ‘Suck it up. It’s your job.’ And that’s so frustrating because that’s not my job. It’s not my job to come to work and expect to be punched in the face. You know, it’s not my job to come to work and expect to be hurt because you didn’t staff the building properly so now I can’t take care of my own family. You know what I mean? (CCA, Manitoba) 
Okay, well we’re short two CCAs and one LPN and…we as nurses care for two houses, you know, we care for all these people with only three [staff]… . There’s just nobody to help and there’s nobody to cover, right? So you just basically go through a shift hoping you’re going to have a good shift and nothing big happens because if it does, I mean you have to deal with it. But there’s nurses here that go without breaks because you just don’t have the time. A lot of nurses go without breaks and that’s again cause for burnout, right? (LPN Nova Scotia)
[The] ratios are key because every nurse and LPN and care aide wants to give amazing care and that’s why we have so many leaving the profession, right? It’s because the ethical and moral distress that you cannot do your job the way you’re supposed to be doing your job and you’re just trying to just make it through the day. So if there was funding put into having, you know, the appropriate ratios then yeah, of course it would work. It would be amazing wouldn’t it? (RN British Columbia)
As the Points West Living lockout in Cold Lake moves past 150 days, it is important to reflect that a significant issue is the workers’ demand for mandatory staffing levels such that the employer can’t run short-staffed if someone calls in sick or goes on vacation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, May 29, 2017

Bill 17: Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act

Last week, Alberta introduced Bill 17 which makes significant changes to employment and labour law in Alberta. I did a short analysis of Bill 17 for the Parkland Institute which is available here. This gist is that Bill 17 has some real gains for non-unionized workers but, overall, represents modest change. There may also be some unanticipated outcomes from these amendments.

An interesting way to look at the Bill is as part of the New Democrats' re-election strategy which seems to be (in part) based upon appealing to women and middle-class families (much like Alison Redford did in 2012).

Friday, May 26, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Talk a Walk

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Talk a Walk” by Passion Pit. Electropop isn’t really my thing but this song is catchy and was featured in an episode of The Newsroom.

This song offers a sympathetic portrayal of the life of a business man (or men) who is down on his luck. Each verse of the song is based upon the experiences of a different family member of the lyricist.

The result is the singer’s perspective and/or circumstances is constantly changing (i.e., the singer does not stay in character). In a May 2012 interview, Michael Angelakos stated:
It's about very specific family members, the male hierarchy, and how the men in my family have always dealt with money. I've always been really fond of a lot of my family members and not so fond of others. All these men were very conservative; socially very liberal but for some reason, they all came here for capitalism, and they all ended up kind of being prey to capitalism.
Overall, a more metacognitive spin on being a worker than most songs about labour.

All these kinds of places
Make it seem like it's been ages
Tomorrow's sun with buildings scrape the sky
I love this country dearly
I can feel the lighter clearly
But never thought I'd be alone to try1

Once I was outside Penn Station
Selling red and white carnations
You were still alone
My wife and I
Before we marry, save my money
Brought my dear wife over
Now I want to bring my family state side

But off the boat they stayed a while
Then scatter cross the course
Once a year I'll see them for a week or so at most
I took a walk

Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

Practice isn't perfect
With the market cuts and loss
I remind myself that times could be much worse
My wife won't ask me questions
And there's not so much to ask
And she'll never flaunt around an empty purse

Once my mother-in-law came
Just to stay a couple nights
Then decided she would stay the rest of her life
I watch my little children, play some board game in the kitchen
And I sit and pray they never feel my strife

But then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone
He made some bad investments
Now the counts are overdrawn

I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

Honey it's your son I think I borrowed just to much
We had taxes we had bills
We had a lifestyle to front
And tonight I swear I'll come home
And we'll make love like we're young
And tomorrow you'll cook dinner
For the neighbors and the kids
We could rent the Wart of socialists
And all their ten taxes
You'll see I am no criminal
I'm down on both bad knees
I'm just too much a coward
To admit when I'm in need

I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The argument for card-check certification in Alberta

It is expected that the Alberta government will introduce legislation this week containing changes to the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code. Employers are expressing concern with the possibility that Alberta will re-introduce card-check provisions that govern how workers can unionize.

Currently, unionization is a two-step process. First, workers sign a petition or buy union memberships. Then the union applies to the Labour Relations Board (showing support from at least 40% of the workers) and, assuming all is in order, the Board conducts an employee vote about 10 business days later.

Card check would (likely) mean that, if a union can show a clear majority of employees had joined the union (e.g., 65%), then the Board would just automatically certify the union and avoid the need for a vote. (Applications with support lower than the card check threshold would likely still require a vote.)

Card-check was universal in the 1970s. Since then, there has been a general, but uneven, drift toward mandatory certification votes.

The principles underlying all certification processes are that (1) employees should choose whether or not they wish to be represented by a union (2) as a group and (3) free from undue influence.

Related to the third principle, labour laws contain a variety of unfair labour practices designed to prevent unions and employers from exercising undue influence. The effectiveness of these prohibitions is uneven.

One Canadian study suggests that 80% of employees facing a certification drive oppose it. Sixty percent overtly resisted certification by, for example, expressing concern or opposition in captive audience meetings or trying to stall the vote. And almost 20% do things that are likely unfair labour practices (e.g., threats, dismissal).

The effectiveness of these tactics is uneven: some seem to drive down certification success rates and some drive them up (data limitations suggests viewing these conclusions with caution). In broad terms, the upshot is that employer interference with certification drives is both common place and damaging.

The key argument for card check is that it denies employers the opportunity to try a sink the organizing campaign during the time between the application and the vote. The likely effect of introducing card check provisions in Alberta is that there will be more and more successful union organizing drives.

The best evidence for this comes from BC. When it moved from card check to mandatory votes in 1984, there was a 50% reduction in certification drives and a 19% reduction is successful private-sector drives. A return to card check in 1993 saw a 19% increase is successful private-sector drives.  Other studies have found similar effects.

Last week, the Calgary Herald came out against card check, opining:
Such a change would strip employees of their privacy and expose them to possible manipulation, or even intimidation. The decision to support certification is a personal one and should be conducted in the same way voters elect their governments, free from the influence of those who may possess their own agenda. 
Requiring private ballots is fair to everyone — employees and employers.
The Herald’s assertion that certification votes are free from employer influence sits so contrary to the evidence that either the editorial board members have no idea what they are talking about or they do know but are wilfully ignoring how labour relations is actually practiced in Alberta.

Equating the selection of a bargaining agent with the selection of a government is a common (albeit facile) comparison that the Wildrose and business groups use. There are many differences between the two. The most important is that the government doesn't typically threaten to take away your job if you vote against them.

Certainly card-check provisions require workers to express support or opposition directly to union organizers (by signing or not signing a union card). Setting aside the awkward fact (for the Herald, anyways) that this also happens under the vote system (because union organizers need to provide evidence of support to get a vote), I’m not sure that is a big deal.

While I didn’t spend all day at, I couldn’t find any academic studies suggesting intimidation is commonplace or any Manitoba LRB decisions about union intimidation (Manitoba had card check until just recently). This dearth of evidence that unions bully employees very much broadly jives with my experience at the Labour Board from 2001 to 2003 where I took one call about union intimidation and hundreds of calls about employer intimidation.

There is some anecdotal evidence that can be read to suggest card check does not demonstrate workers’ preferences. However, this “evidence” can also be read to support the proposition that employers routinely intimidate workers between certification applications and votes.

On balance, card check appears to result in workers being better able to choose whether or not they want to unionized free from intimidation than certification votes do. Perhaps the most interesting question is whether the NDs will support such a change.

Certainly organized labour wants card check. Choosing not to introduce it may undermine the opposition’s narrative that the NDs are in the pocket of the unions and would take away an avenue of opposition attack. (Being in a union, I can assure you that the NDs are not in the unions' pockets….) Such a decision would be consistent with the ND’s broader move towards the political centre as part of their re-election strategy.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 19, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Boiled Frogs

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Boiled Frogs” by Alexisonfire. The song is about the monotony of work and how, over time, we lose our capacity to recognize how bad it has become. It also touches on how workers are used (and used up) by employers.

Band member George Pettit told Much Music:
"It's an analogy. I wrote it inspired by my father who worked at a job where he designed refrigerator parts for 26 years. He was coming up to his pension the last three years and I guess when people are coming up to their pension they really put the screws to them. They're up for review all the time, trying to get them to quit so that they forfeit their pension. It really makes it a stressful last three years. The song is kind of about that, about there being no loyalty in the workplace. 
"And my mother went to this conference talking to different generations in the workplace and they referred to her generation as 'boiled frogs.' The analogy is that if you take a frog and put it in boiling water, it will jump right out immediately, but if you put it in cold water and then you slowly turn the heat up, they'll just eventually fall asleep and die. Same way with people in the workplace. If it's too hectic when they first get there, they'll just quit and get another job, but if you slowly up the workload, lower the pay, they're more likely to sit there and just boil."
While the boiling frog story is a myth, the dynamic as it applies to work (in my experience) appears to be real. Many people will choose to accept deteriorating conditions rather than leave. This may be due to the high cost of job change (especially as we age) as well as our perception about whether things will be better elsewhere.

[George] A man sits at his desk
One year from retirement,
And he's up for review
Not quite sure what to do
Each passing year
The workload grows

[Dallas] I'm always wishing, I'm always wishing too late
For things to go my way
It always ends up the same
(Count your blessings)
I must be missing, I must be missing the point
Your signal fades away and all I'm left with is noise
(Count your blessings on one hand)

So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life

[George] Poor little tin man, still swinging his axe,
Even though his joints are clogged with rust

[Wade] My youth is slipping, my youth is slipping away
Safe in monotony, (so safe), day after day
(Count your blessings)
My youth is slipping, my youth is slipping away
Cold wind blows off the lake, and I know for sure that it's too late
(Count your blessings on one hand)

[Dallas] So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life

[George] Can't help but feel betrayed, punch the clock every single day
There's no loyalty and no remorse
Youth sold for a pension cheque
And it makes him fucking sick
He's heating up, he can't say no


[Dallas] So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight,
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life.
(So wait up)
So wait up I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
Between the light and shallow waves is where I'm going to die
Wait up for me
Wait up for me
Wait up for me

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Research: Impact of IT outsourcing on employees

The journal Work, Employment & Society recently published an article entitled “‘An end to the job as we know it’: how an IT professional has experienced the uncertainty of IT outsourcing” that foregrounds the experiences of an employee whose work is being contracted out.

The worker’s story starts with the creation of cost-savings targets by the employer. Once communicated to shareholders, the targets set expectations that may (or may not) have been achievable. The result was intense pressure to generate cost savings.

Internal restructuring and efforts to benchmark in-house work against the market” lead to significant anxiety and the spectre that this process was a sham. Eventually, all five IT functional were scheduled for outsourcing (mostly to India). 

The actual savings attributable to the outsourcing is roughly what the CEO receives as a annual bonus. All other savings (and most of the overall savings) could have been achieved by internal staff without the risk of shifting to unstable IT platforms staffed by inexperienced and dis-tinterested contractors.

The impact of this decision on morale was significant, especially given that many of the affected employees had made an extra effort (including accepting pay freezes and unpaid leave to help the company out during previous difficulties). Voluntary redundancies followed, leaving chaos, knowledge gaps, and emotional distress in the wake.

Offshoring was eventually announced with the remaining staff being treated as disposable. The employer skillfully split the workforce into different factions (those continuing and those leaving) to sow division and prevent a coherent response by the workers.

Workers wanting to receive their severance packages were then required to transfer their business knowledge to contractors and sign a gag order. Those who remain have little power and there is a significant emotional cost to all workers involved.

Overall, this short narrative highlights the messy and damaging impact the outsourcing can have on employees and their organization. One effect (not considered in the original projections) is that those workers who remain are constraining their efforts due to the betrayal by their employer of the psychological contract they previously established.

(In retrospect, I should have put a trigger warning in this post for AU employees who are reading this!)

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 12, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Westray

Westray Memorial
This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Westray” by Short Notice. This week marks the 25th anniversary of an explosion at Nova Scotia’s Westray mine that killed 26 workers and injured 11 more. The explosion was the result of the employer negligence and gave rise to (sadly ineffective) amendments to the allowing criminal prosecutions for workplace injuries and deaths.

There are a number of Westray songs. I choice this one because of the themes it pulls out. They include how politics is so closely intertwined with employment in resource-based communities:
Pictou county is Tory blue
Dyed in the wool and blue collar too
Elect a Prime Minister they’ll treat you kind
They’ll give you a job in the Westray mine
Perhaps most important is how workers’ are pressured to trade their safety (and their lives) for employment:
Knee deep in dust they worked every day
Inspectors and mine bosses looked the other way
You want to keep your job you will tow the line
Not a word leaves the bowels of the Westray mine
The song also pulls no punches about who was responsible for the disaster and how little they cared:
Twenty-two families were torn that day
Working men’s dreams simply snuffed away
While Frame and Phillips still live happy lives
They lose no sleep over the Westray mine
Frame is Clifford Frame, the businessman who ultimately controlled the Westray Mine. Phillips is Gerald Phillips, one of the mine managers who took no action on the safety concerns.

The flesh and bone and the steel’s entwined
There’s blood on the coal in the Westray mine
There’s blood on the coal in the Westray mine

Pictou county is Tory blue
Dyed in the wool and blue collar too
Elect a Prime Minister they’ll treat you kind
They’ll give you a job in the Westray mine

The foord seam coal is known to kill
Every scar on her face she has always filled
With the lives of the men who have loathe to find
To stay they must work in a foord seam mine

Knee deep in dust they worked every day
Inspectors and mine bosses looked the other way
You want to keep your job you will tow the line
Not a word leaves the bowels of the Westray mine

Recession makes men work where they should not stay
They will risk their lives for a good days pay
Till gas and politics grew too great to confine
Blew the roof off the ramp of the Westray mine

Bare faced miners and draegermen too
Did all that good brave men could do
But not a living soul was there left to find
After hell had its way in the Westray mine

Twenty-two families were torn that day
Working men’s dreams simply snuffed away
While Frame and Phillips still live happy lives
They lose no sleep over the Westray mine

Many years have passed sadly little has changed
After all this time not one scoundrel’s paid
Till politicians’ lives are on the line
Good men will die in some Westray mine

The death blast roar and the sirens whine
Pray those husbands sons and brothers aren’t yours and mine
Leave their soul on the rock in the Westray mine
Soul on the rock in the Westray mine

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Mirror, Mirror: NDs act like Tories on Bill 7

Last week, Alberta’s Bill 7 was passed and came into effect. This Bill moves faculty and graduate student collective bargaining under the Labour Relations Code. This means bargaining impasse will (effective immediately) be resolved via strike-lockout. Overall, Bill 7 is sensible and necessary to respond to the evolving jurisprudence around freedom of association.

The two most contentious parts of Bill 7 have to do with transition periods. Bill 7 creates a five-year ban on workers selecting a different (or no) union. In contrast, Bill 7 moves workers from arbitration to strike-lockout immediately (and, indeed, a bit retroactively).

During debate, Alberta Party MLA Greg Clark introduced an amendment to create a transition period to strike-lockout. This extra time, he said, would allow workers and their unions time to prepare, both financially and organizationally for this fairly fundamental change to bargaining. Clark proposed a three-year extension, but even a one-year delay would have been a huge improvement.

Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt indicated the government would oppose the amendment:
We believe, Madam Chair, that because of the length of time between the introduction of this bill, the lengthy consultation process that we’ve engaged in with our stakeholders since October 2015, and the fact that this decision came down in early 2015, the faculty associations have had approximately two years to prepare for a transition to this strike/lockout model. We believe that the transition time that has been given and is recognized in this bill is appropriate and just. (p. 811).
This response has a certain alt-facts ring to it. The content of the legislation was unclear until a month ago. The government clearly promised during the consultations that there would be a transition period. Every submission I saw by faculty associations flagged the need for a transition period. By contrast, there was no indication that strike-lockout would start immediately or affect negotiations currently underway. That kind of news would have galvanized associations to act immediately.

The Minister’s suggestion that the consultation period was the transition period (just, apparently, a secret transition period) is the kind of sophistry unions are used to from Tory governments. Compounding the growing sense that we'd slipped into some kind of alternate universe was ND MLA David Shepherd efforts to do some damage control later that day:
Now, the fact is that nobody will lose the right to use binding arbitration if Bill 7 is passed. In fact, it remains available on a voluntary basis, with agreement from both parties, under section 93 of the Labour Relations Code. (p.830)
This statement is either deeply naïve or completely disingenuous. Labour relations are about power and money. If an employer suddenly (by act of government) finds itself in a better position to grind wages, is it really gonna agree to binding arbitration and give away that advantage?

So what is the real reason for this double-cross?

Shepherd helps us out here when he explained the rapid shift to strike-lockout is about saving the government money: “Indeed, I think it’s a fiscally responsible thing to do… .” (p. 830) and “it will allow the faculty, the graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and the institutions to come to more prudent agreements ” (p. 831). “More prudent” is neoliberal code for “lower wages”. Still later, Shepherd noted:
Indeed, given our current economic climate I think it makes sense that we try to find labour negotiation models that are going to ensure that we use public dollars responsibly. We know that compulsory arbitration in the past has at times tended to result in higher wage increases. That’s something that’s not sustainable, and we certainly recognize that it is not the direction to be going in for the province right now (p. 831)
Shepherd is, of course, wrong about arbitration giving unions unsustainable wage increases (my association, for example, have taken zeros in four or five of the last 10 years because that is what we would have gotten at arbitration).

Setting aside, you know, facts, basically what is going on here is the NDs are in a fiscal bind and most expeditious way to minimize the wage bill in PSE was to give employers a hammer in the short-term by moving to strike-lockout while unions are unprepared.

This is exactly the kind of move the Tories would have made, although the Tories would have at least had the good political sense to lie about it. That the NDs have done this under the guise of protecting workers’ associational rights is particularly galling.

To be fair, the NDs weren’t the only who appeared to have transported into an alternate universe. Wildrose MLA Wayne Anderson proposed extending the period during which workers are stuck with their current bargaining agent from 5 years to 10 years. So basically the province’s most right-wing party is advocating forced unionization. (Pro tip: This may not play well with the base.)

Anderson’s motion is also inconsistent with the Wildrose’s handwringing about the possibility that the NDs will enact card check certification for workers throughout Alberta. Basically, the Wildrose is (facilely) asserting that the only democratic way to determine if workers want a union is through a certification vote (which gives employers time to meddle in the workers’ decision). Yet, apparently, it is cool and all democratic-like to deny faculty and grad students any opportunity to select a different (or no!) union for 10 years.

The ND’s response?
Mr Schmidt: … Of course, they won’t have that choice until 2022 as we recognize that there is some need to transition faculty associations and grad student associations into the new model so that they are well positioned to represent their members at the bargaining table. … We feel that 2022 is certainly an adequate transition time. Five years will give every faculty association and grad student association ample time to prepare for that date. (p.813)
Again, a totally factually incorrect statement: faculty associations and GSAs have been successfully representing their members for years. There is no need for a transition period around raiding and decertification.

Yet, if we accept the logic of Minister Spock's Schmidt's statement, he's but himself in the untenable (and illogical position) of saying that (1) faculty associations need time to transition to the new rules around bargaining agent status but (2) they can just be dumped willy-nilly into a new dispute resolution process where their employers will have an opportunity to roll them at the bargaining table?

This is a profoundly disturbing (and hypocritical) position for the government to take.

Faculty deserve the right to select their bargaining agent now, not in 2022.

Faculty currently in bargaining deserve a fair chance to prepare for a lockout by their employer instead of being dropped in the soup by the NDs.

And faculty deserve an apology for (1) being misled by the government about the transition period and then (2) thrown under the bus so the NDs can try to lock up the centre vote by being "fiscally prudent".

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 5, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Get Back In Line (Again)

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Get Back in Line” by Motorhead. I ran across this song while looking for a video of the Kink’s song by the same name.

This song is explicitly about class conflict in modern society. Lenny opens by singing about how workers “fight for every crust” and “all things come to he who waits” but “the waiting never ends”.

The video contrasts the life of the rich and powerful (with champagne, coke, opulent surroundings, and extravagant food) with the gritty experience of the band (and, presumably, their fans).

The band’s entry into this world (and subsequent drubbing of the wealthy) metaphorically speaks to how habits, beliefs and laws are the only thing that allows the existing power structure to persist.
We are the sacrifice and we don't like advice
We always pay the price, pearls before swine
Now we are only slaves, already in our graves
And if you think that Jesus saves, get back in line
How long such an arrangement will persist in a world of decreasing opportunity fr the working class is an interesting question.

We live on borrowed time, hope turned to dust
Nothing is forgiven, we fight for every crust
The way we are is not the way we used to be my friend
All things come to he who waits, the waiting never ends

We are the chosen few, we are the frozen crew
We don't know what to do, just wasting time
We don't know when to quit, we don't have room to spit
But we'll get over it, get back in line

Stuck here ten thousand years, don't know how to act
Everything forgotten, specially the facts
The way we live is running scared, I don't like it much
All things come to he who waits but these days most things suck

We are the chosen ones, we don't know right from wrong
We don't know what's going on, don't know enough to care
We are the dogs of war, don't even know what for
But we obey the law, get back in line

We are trapped in luxury, starving on parole
No one told us who to love, we have sold our souls
Why do we vote for faceless dogs? We always take the bait
All things come to he who waits but all things come too late

We are the sacrifice and we don't like advice
We always pay the price, pearls before swine
Now we are only slaves, already in our graves
And if you think that Jesus saves, get back in line

If you think that Jesus saves, get back in line

--Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"Canadians first" rhetoric is icky and untrue

In mid-April, the provincial and federal governments announced a new “Employer Liaison Service” which connects Alberta employers who seeking staff with unemployed Albertans.

This service is intended, in part, to dampen employer concerns about federal government’s recent refusal to process applications from employers seeking temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in 29 high-skill occupations.

The temporary foreign worker program is certainly a program in need of reform. Its expansion in the mid-2000s created a large category of extremely vulnerable workers (whose residency was contingent upon their employment) and whose employers (naturally) exploited and endangered them.

There is also some suggestion that the TFW program loosened the labour market unnecessarily, resulting in wage suppression and, perhaps, reducing the opportunity of Canadians from traditionally disadvantaged group to access employment.

While policy change is due, some context is useful here. Of the 10,000 TFWs that employers brought to Alberta in 2016, only 400 were in the 29 high-skill occupations that the federal government recently added to its “do not process” list for the next two years (I've heard a couple of different versions of the numbers but the differences aren't really substantive). So this is totally a symbolic move with little practical effect on the labour market or employers.

Alberta Tory MP Matt Jeneroux tepidly supported the change, telling CBC:
We're intrigued that they're looking at Alberta finally, but let's point out that it's a step in the right direction. But that being said, it's a small one.
It is important to note that it was Jeneroux’s own party that opened the flood gates to foreign workers in 2006, both through expanding the TFW program and by signing dozens of new free trade agreements that have labour mobility provisions. I couldn't find any comment on the changes from former TFW kingpin and now Alberta-Tory-leader-in-hiding Jason Kenney. You can watch the Alberta Federation of Labour's response below (I hope--the link was kind of hinky).

The federal Liberal government has been pushing a “Canadians first” message around this change. For example, Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu recently said:
The focus of the federal government with the temporary foreign worker program is always to make sure Canadians have the first crack at available jobs, and then after that is done, then to look at supporting employers with prolonged labour shortages in very specific areas.
I certainly see the political attraction of framing these changes as “Canadians first”. Critics of the change appear to be against “Canadians” or “jobs for Canadians”. But this framing has some problems.

First, it isn’t true. There were over 200,000 unemployed Albertans in March. Yet, in 2016, the feds let employers hire 10,000 TFWs (mostly in low skill occupations) in Alberta. (There were also over 30,000 foreign workers in Alberta under various international labour mobility programs.)

Basically, there have been no meaningful reforms to address (1) inappropriate hirings of TFWs, or (2) exploitation of TFWs. Indeed, the program continues on pretty much as it always has. In theory, employers have had to “prove” there are no Albertans available to work. But that process is widely (and correctly) perceived as a joke and easy to manipulate.

Second, this “Canadians first” framing comes off as xenophobic. It is a slightly nicer version of “fureners is stealin' ar jobs”. The history of the TFW program is that foreign workers were invited here by employers with the blessing of the federal and provincial Tories. Then they were treated terribly. Trying (however subtly or inadvertently) to shift responsibility for the problems of the TFW program onto the TFWs is profoundly unfair.

The announcement is also deeply cynical. The changes announced affect about 4% of TFW hires in Alberta. If TFWs pose a threat to Canadians requiring a federal response, shouldn't the response by meaningful? For example, why not eliminate the TFW program entirely?

An interesting question is why do Alberta employers, given an unemployment rate of 8.4%, continue to seek TFWs? The rationale advanced by business and government for the TFW program has historically been one of labour shortage. That employers continue to hire thousands of TFWs in the face of a huge labour surplus suggests that labour shortages are a red herring.

Really what employers want is cheap and compliant workers. Whether governments ought to help them access such a workforce—given its potential to reduce wages and safety for all workers—appears to be a question the federal government is reluctant to engage head on.

-- Bob Barnetson