Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Bill 30 debate a disaster for UCP

Last week, Alberta finally passed Bill 30 (An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans). I’ve written about the changes to the OHS Act here and here as well as the changes to workers’ compensation here, here, and here.

The debate about Bill 30 was pretty boring until last Tuesday. The United Conservative Party (UCP) spent most of its time trying to doom Bill 30 to a slow death in committee. You read see the debate in Hansard. The UCP advanced several arguments.

Not Enough Consultation
Basically the opposition argued that there hadn’t been enough consultation about the Bill. This ignores that the OHS consultation included 1,300 online surveys, 90 written submissions, 200 stakeholders participating in face-to-face consultations. The WCB consultation went on for more than a year and included 1,700 questionnaires, 200 written submissions, 67 workbook responses, hundreds of stakeholders in various face-to-face consultations, and then the 60 responses to the WCB review panel's report.

A variant on this critique was that there is no need to rush Bill 3 through. According to UC MLA Mike Ellis:
As the minister so enjoys pointing out, the OH and S Act came out when Wayne Gretzky was a rookie and when cellphones did not exist. Syncrude had opened its mine. Minister, what is the rush? As for the WCB, the minister kindly pointed out that the last comprehensive review of the act occurred 15 years ago. Once again, is there a need to rush and force it through in days? I think not, Mr. Speaker. (p. 2217).
It is a bit rich for a former Tory MLA to claim there is need to hurry modernizing the OHS Act (which isn’t working very well) after his former party left it largely untouched since 1976. Those who depend upon the Act to protect them at work might well want some action after 41 years of being maimed and killed on the job. Premier Notley basically said as much during the debate:
This is about the members opposite not wanting to take these important steps forward to protect workers, to protect their families, and to keep them safe. That is the decision that is being made here right now by the members opposite as they engage in these ridiculous conversations about the need to delay. (p. 2249)
Overall, this line of attack was profoundly underwhelming and runs contrary to the facts.

Safety Costs Too Much
The opposition then made several attempts to say that, “sure, safety is important, but who will think about the bottom line!?!” For example, UCP MLA Grant Hunter stated:
Safety measures sure can be expensive, and joint committees are no exception. All training for committee members is required by this bill to be covered by the employer. Workplace training for employees is usually covered at the expense of the employer, primarily because the knowledge and skills acquired will go to the long-term benefit of the business. However, committee members are entitled to an annual maximum of 16 hours of training at the expense of the employer for a committee that will only reduce workplace efficiency and fail to improve the safety of the workers. (p. 2133)
This argument has the virtue of being an honest portrayal of employer objections to safer workplaces. I’m less convinced that trading worker safety for profit is in the public interest or is a good position for a political party to stake out (pro-tip: workers are also voters).

Split the Bill
The UCP complained Bill 30 was too complex for them to understand. Some of their troubles may stem from the UCP’s inability to manage its caucus budget and the resulting layoff of most of their staff. I know how tough it is when you have to do your own research and read legislation yourself.

I do have some sympathy for this argument in that big bills tend to obscure changes. I have much less sympathy for the UCP, given that their party is led by a former Harper cabinet minister and that government used omnibus legislation to ram through changes all the time. Sauce for the goose and all.

Workers Are Stupid
Rather disappointingly, UCP MLA Prasad Panda suggested that asking employers to ensure their workplaces are safe was unfair because workers are stupid:
Now, Madam Speaker, as Forrest Gump used to say, “Stupid is as stupid does.” As much as we want to legislate stupid away, stupid is as stupid does, and accidents will happen on work sites when workers are not paying attention or are not careful and not thinking things through. This Bill 30: the core principle of this bill is that all work-site parties have a responsibility for the health and safety of all workers. I completely agree with that. However, Bill 30 puts significantly more responsibility on employers. (p.2276)
Okay, wow. I had thought this would be the low point in debate. But then shit got real for the UCP.

UCP House Leader Sacks Worker for Complaining About Sexual Harassment
Last Tuesday, the Edmonton Journal ran a story about UC House Leader Jason Nixon. A 2008 BC Human Rights Tribunal had found that one of Nixon’s employees at a safety company was sexually harassed on the job in 2005. When she complained, Nixon (eventually) terminated her employment. She was awarded $32,000 in damages.

The details of the harassment are awful. The harasser watched porn in front of victim. He slapped her on the butt and told her to dress sexier. And he offered her dope, lingere, and new tires in exchange for sex (the good ole boy trifecta).

Nixon then fired the single mom of three just days before Christmas and sent her termination letter to the harasser. And he declined to participate in the human rights case. Beneath these facts, there is a complex subcontracting arrangement in the background that resulted in Nixon’s company being pressured to fire the victim. So basically profit trumped protecting the worker.

The #ableg twitter feed went basically insane in its condemnation of Nixon. Here are two illustrative examples:

The NDs also lost no time calling for the UCP to remove Nixon as house leader (the UCP did not) and went after him in Question Period. This response collectively reflects both the heinous nature of Nixon’s behaviour and that Nixon had previously argued against Bill 30 (which includes new protections against harassment).

For example, he stated “The right way to deal with it is to get the industry to address it, to work through their safety associations … and they will do it. They’ve already proven it.” I wonder if Nixon knows what "proof" means?

Reporters grilled Nixon mercilessly about the apparent hypocrisy of arguing against legislation around sexual harassment while (somehow) forgetting his own company's egregious behaviour:
Reporter: Jason, you’ve been convicted by a tribunal, they have found you guilty of firing somebody who was sexually harassed. And that never popped into your head when you talking about the rules on sexual harassment in the House, that’s what you’re telling us today? 
Nixon: No it did not. 
Reporter: It just blanked right out.
Nixon also told the Journal that “Any time we’ve made large advancements on occupational safety, it’s been driven by industry.” This statement is, of course, laughably wrong.

Nixon later attempted to clarify his comments in the Legislature (see p. 2506) However, this scandal was so politically toxic that the UCP decided not to further extend the session with additional debate.

The UCP's unwillingness to further debate Bill 30 (presumably to avoid more political damage) undermines their already weak critique of the Bill. Were there really problems with Bill 30? Or was the UCP just grand-standing on behalf of employers?

Their behaviour suggests the latter. Hopefully voters will remember in 2019 whose side the UCP took when the government tried to improve injury prevention and compensation for Alberta workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

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