Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Labour & Pop Culture: I wish that they'd sack me.

It has been a pretty tough year for Alberta public-sector workers. After two years of wage-freezes under the New Democrats, the newly elected United Conservative Party legislative intervened in collective agreements to stall wage arbitrations and then demanded rollbacks of 2 to 5%. There have also been hiring freezes and more roll backs and layoffs are just around the corner.

This has had a deleterious effect on morale across the public sector. While many people likely shrug, declining morale tends to pre-sage declining effort, growing use of sick time (due to stress), and a slow trickle of departures. This intensifies the stress on those who remain and results in a negative feedback loop.

Chumbawamba’s  "I Wish That They'd Sack Me" pretty much sums up much of the conversation at the holiday parties I attended this year.

Six in the morning don't want to wake
Sun laying low and the world sleeping late
Hate like the river runs heavy and deep
Oh I wish that they'd sack me and leave me to sleep

Five days from seven the week's hardly mine
The alarm clock's gone over to enemy lines
Waste my time working for cowards and creeps
Oh I wish that they'd sack me and leave me to sleep

Rain strikes the window heralds the day
Rain won't you wash these eight hours away?
Rain feeds the river runs heavy and deep
Oh I wish that they'd sack me and leave me to sleep

Birds at my window sing in the dawn
By the time that I'm home all this day will be gone
Spend my life sowing what others will reap
Oh I wish that they'd sack me and leave me to sleep

Rain strikes the window heralds the day
Rain won't you wash these eight hours away?
Rain feeds the river runs heavy and deep
Oh I wish that they'd sack me and leave me to sleep

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Research: Return to work among injured mobile workers

The American Journal of Industrial Medicine recently published an interesting article about the intersection between mobile work and return to work following as workplace injury.

The study, “Total disability days in interprovincial and home‐province workers injured in Alberta, Canada,” compared the speed of return to work for 240 pairs of workers (each comprising one worker injured in Alberta and who required time off from work from Alberta and one from Atlantic Canada). This comparison was supplemented by 60 interviews with injured workers.

The overall findings are that mobile workers were less likely to return to work (79%) than resident workers (90%) and required almost three times as long as resident workers to return to work (63 days to 22 days). This likely reflects the importance of family support during a recovery from an injury which took mobile workers away from the jurisdiction in which they were injured.

The study includes a very nicely nuanced conclusion:
The conclusion from this study is not that out‐of‐province workers should necessarily be provided with greater services in Alberta, nor that they should be required to seek health care only in the province of injury. Rather, we would argue that the higher costs for wage replacement associated with extended time off work may be inherent to the practice of employing out‐of‐province workers for jobs for which there is a shortage of local labor. (p.9)
This reflects that labour mobility entails costs, both to employers and workers. Some of these employer costs can be attenuated through policy changes. Others either should not be attenuated because of the impact such changes would have on the more vulnerable party (the worker).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Labour & Pop Culture: The Crown and Supergirl

As I recover from the end of semester marking rush, I’ve noticed a few instances of labour issues appearing on TV shows. 

In an otherwise dull season of The Crown, there are two items of note:

Ep 3: Aberfan: This episode centres on the destruction of the mining village of Aberfan. Piles of coal slag were stacked too high and shifted, burying portions of the town, including the school. The Queen feels bad.

Ep. 9: Imbroglio: A subplot in this episode is the 1972 miner’s strike in Britain which causes rolling blackouts. After two months on the line, the workers gained a 27% pay increase. The Queen feels bad.

A funnier thing I noticed was in season 3 of Supergirl. Episode 4 sees Supergirl rescue a man from a burning factory. As Supergirl walks away, you can just see at the top of the frame the “days without an injury” sign flip from 190 to 0.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Barriers to implementing OERs

Barriers to implementing OERs
Council of Alberta University Students
20 November 2019, Edmonton

I recently had the opportunity to discuss Open Educational Resources (OERs) with student leaders from across Alberta. Their interest in OERs focuses on the cost savings. I was asked to discuss barriers to OER implementation.
Two quick notes to start.
  1. I was asked by the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations to talk about the barriers to OER adoption from a faculty perspective because I’ve written and adopted three OER textbooks in my courses. That said, just to be clear—I’m here as a professor and my views are not necessarily CAFA’s view.
  2. I’m also going to use the terms OER and textbook interchangeably. I acknowledge there are other forms of OERs than just textbook analogs. But, for the most part, OERs essentially serve in place of textbooks, so I’m going to use the terms interchangeably.
So why is OER adoption so slow? I see basically three main issues.

First, in my experience, there are no OERs available for most courses (that is changing but slowly). And the OERs that are available tend to be a mixed bag in terms of their quality and suitability. For example, I teach an intro HR course. There are OERs but they often tend to be niche-focused (e.g., introduction to HR in the tourism sector). And many are pretty mickey-mouse, which may create accreditation problems. So I don’t use them, even though I would like to use an OER in that course.

The limited number of OERs reflects that there are few to no resources available to write and produce OERs. While OERs can be cheaper to produce than commercial textbooks, they still do cost money. Right now, post-secondary institutions almost entirely rely upon commercial texts because these texts externalize the cost of production to students. If we’re going to want to increase the breadth or number of OERs, then we need to address the economics of it. And, bluntly, someone needs to fund it.

And that doesn’t just mean one-time funding. Commecial texts are attractive to profs and institutions not just because they are “free”, but also because they are periodically updated at no cost to the academics or the institutions. If there are few to no resources to write new OERs, then there are even fewer resources to update OERs periodically. This is more urgent in some disciplines than others, but producing a one-off book with no prospect of updates makes profs reluctant to use the book. Again, this comes back to funding.

This is one of the OERs I’ve written. It is a health and safety textbook. It costs $30 in paper and is a free as a pdf. This is the main commercial health and safety textbook. It costs $150—five times the costs. Now a certain amount of that difference is profit for the publisher and royalties for the author. And a certain amount of the difference has to do with production costs—my OER is very bare bones: black and white, text heavy, no pictures or other pretty filler material.

But, at the end of the day, both books have certain sunk costs associated with writing, editing, peer-review, and production. My OER cost about $40,000 that we got as a government grant. That was $30 grand for 52 days of course release to write plus $10 grand for production costs. Both of those amounts under-represent the true cost of production—my institution absorbed those extra costs. I would guess they were in the neighbourhood of $25k. So this one book cost about $65k to create.

A second OER that I wrote I did without any funding. I found the time by displacing my own research (which entails a certain career cost to me) and I used my own money to cover some of the production costs (the remainder were covered by institution). I’m currenting mooting writing an OER HR textbook, but it simply requires money and time that I don’t at present have.

A second issue is that most OERs are digital products—which is why they can be provided for free. My experience is that most profs and a large proportion of students don’t like electronic textbooks. I’ve actually moved away from commercial etexts in two courses because I got tired of the complaining from students.

These complaints generally swirl around etexts being hard to read and hard to annotate. E-texts (even ones stored in the cloud) can also disappear or become inaccessible at the end of or in the middle of a course. And there is some evidence that students retain less of what they read using etexts, when compared to print books. These are not trivial drawbacks associated with digital OERs.

One option is to provide print on demand books or a choice between a print and an e-text. These are good solutions but they entail additional complexity on the production and distribution sides. Institutional bookstores may be reluctant to engage multimodal offerings, especially since OERs are about minimizing cost (and thus drive down bookstore revenues). Using alternative distribution channels dramatically increases the hassle for profs. We use campus bookstores not because they are awesome or fun to deal with, but because they are easy: send in an ISBN and textbooks appear.

A third issue is that OERs are less attractive to instructors. Most commercial books have websites, canned assignments, lecture notes, power points, and test banks. They may even have pro-programmed learning management systems that handle all of the hassle of assignment marking and grade tracking and just export a list of final grades at the end. So commercial texts (like this Kelloway one) is basically plug and play for an instructor.

By contrast, an OER is likely to have none of this material because even basic stuff (like multiple-choice tests) is very laborious to create and, of course, there is no money for OERs. So profs who think about OERs are also thinking about the additional work they are creating for themselves if the adopt an OER.

So, to summarize, the basic barrier is funding related: OERs are not free to create and maintain but their nature (as free to students) means there is no obvious revenue stream to fund their creation and maintenance. A secondary issue is that professors and institutions may have a vested interested in using commercial texts that are respectively related to workload and revenue. And, of course, students don’t necessarily like digital texts.

So what can be done?

Basically there are two challenges: creating adequate OERs and getting profs to adopt them.

Creating is probably the easier issue to deal with. There won’t be an appreciable increase in OERs without additional funding. So where could money come from? Well, you could get new cash from the government, you could get institutions to divert cash from some other project, or you could come up with it from your members. The latter is probably the most likely to happen

Getting profs to adopt OERs is probably harder. One pathway would be to find the 20 highest enrollment courses at your institution, look for OERs for them and, if your find them, go meet with the profs and show them. Explain the cost implications for students and ask them to use them. If they say no, ask why not (as that might inform what you do next).

An easier but likely less effective option is to ask the government to include a performance measure in its new funding model that measures of accessibility based upon the percentage of courses that contain OERs. This might incent some institutional behavioural change. It also gives you a pretext for later on asking the government to specifically fund the creation of OERs.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Bill 26 strips farm workers' basic employment rights

This post originally appeared on the Parkland Institute blog.

Farm workers were granted basic employment rights beginning in late 2015 when the former New Democratic government enacted the Enhanced Protections for Farm and Ranch Workers Act (colloquially referred to as Bill 6). Farmers and conservative politicians were extremely hostile to Bill 6, asserting that basic employment rights would imperil the viability of agricultural operations. Despite the absence of evidence that Bill 6 harmed any farms, the United Conservative Party (UCP) promised to eliminate basic farm worker rights if elected.

On November 20, the Kenney government fulfilled this promise when it introduced Bill 26 (the Farm Freedom and Safety Act). This bill strips Alberta agricultural workers of many basic employment rights. Specifically, it precludes farm workers from unionizing, reduces the occupational health and safety protections for workers, makes workers’ compensation coverage optional, and expands exceptions to employment standards. These changes will be particularly harmful to women and children employed on Alberta’s farms and ranches.

Labour Relations

Bill 26 amends the Labour Relations Code to exclude farm and ranch employees from the definition of employee. This exclusion effectively precludes these workers from forming or joining a trade union. This exclusion is contrary to Section 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects workers’ freedom to engage in associational activity.

In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decided (in Dunmore v Ontario (Attorney General)) that completely excluding agricultural workers from the ambit of Ontario’s Labour Relations Act (LRA) was unconstitutional. Specifically, the vulnerable nature of farm workers means that, farm workers were “substantially incapable of exercising their fundamental freedom to organize without the LRA’s protective regime.”

If challenged, those portions of Bill 26 that exclude agricultural workers from forming or joining a union will almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional. A Charter challenge is, however, unlikely because a challenge normally requires a factual case to get started. Specifically, it requires a live case of farm workers who have attempted to exercise their associational rights (e.g., collectively bargaining) and failed.

As far as I know, there have been no efforts to unionize or collectively bargain in Alberta’s agricultural industry. This reflects the vulnerability of farm workers as well as the small size and transient nature of most farm workforces. The exclusion of farm workers from the ambit of the Labour Relations Code by Bill 26 makes it unlikely any will try in the future because they would have no protection against termination for organizing and no capacity to strike to enforce their collective bargaining demands. This, in turn, means no challenge is likely to arise.
Injury Prevention

Although Bill 26 is silent on the matter, the government has indicated that farms will no longer be subject to the detailed safety rules set out in the Occupational Health and Safety Code. The rudimentary safety rights set out in Occupational Health and Safety Act would continue to apply.

Injury Compensation

At present, farms and ranches with paid, non-family employees must enroll their workers in the workers’ compensation system—like virtually every other employer in every industry across Canada. Workers’ compensation coverage provides wage-loss, rehabilitation, and fatality benefits to workers. Workers’ compensation also precludes workers from suing their employers if the worker is injured.

Prior to 2015, such coverage was optional and relatively few farms purchased it. Some farms purchased private injury insurance. A 2015 study commissioned by the former Progressive Conservative government found that relying on farmers to purchase private insurance left a significant number of farm workers uninsured or underinsured and the private premiums were more expensive than were workers’ compensation premiums. Private insurance also left farmers open to civil suits when injuries or fatalities occurred.

Bill 26 makes two changes to workers’ compensation. First, it allows farmers to choose to carry either workers’ compensation coverage or private insurance coverage. The scope and nature of the private insurance coverage will be determined by regulation. Consequently, the private insurance may not necessarily provide injury-compensation benefits equivalent to those provided by workers’ compensation. Workers may be required by their employer to pay a portion of private insurance premiums (often called co-pay).

Second, Bill 26 exempts any farm with 5 or fewer employees from the requirement to carry any insurance. Further, family members and workers who have been employed for fewer than 6 consecutive months do not count towards the total of 5 employees. This criterion (see Scope of Exclusions below) means that vast majority of farm workers are likely to be under- or uninsured against injury. Employers may still provide insurance or they may leave it to workers to secure their own insurance coverage.

A less obvious concern is that allowing farmers to purchase private insurance in lieu of enrolling in workers’ compensation may open the door to a greater role for private-sector insurance providers in other industries. Some US jurisdictions allow for the private provision of workers’ compensation insurance. This typically results in poor outcomes for injured workers because private providers seek to minimize claims in order to maximize profitability.

Employment Standards

In 2015, farms and ranches employing paid, non-family workers were made subject to most of the provisions in the Employment Standards Code. The Employment Standards Code sets minimum standards around wages, vacations and statutory holidays, various job-protected leaves, and the termination of employment.

Bill 26 makes two main changes. First, farms and ranches that employ 5 or fewer workers are entirely excluded from the ambit of the Code. This means that none of the basic employment rights that every other worker has apply to workers on these farms. Again, family members and workers employed for fewer than 6 consecutive months do not count towards meeting the 5-person threshold. This change has the effect of excluding most farms from the ambit of the Code (see Scope of Exclusions below) and thereby strips most employment protections from most farm workers.

The effects of this exclusion will be significant for farm and ranch workers on farms with 5 or fewer employees. For example, there will be no minimum wage, vacation time, statutory holidays, or required termination notice for these workers. Excluded workers under 18 will continue to have no limits on what sort of work they can do, under what conditions, and for how long because child labour laws don't apply. Excluded workers will have no access to job-protected parental, compassionate care, family responsibility, or domestic violence leaves, all of which are disproportionately accessed by female workers.

Employers can, of course, voluntarily comply with employment standards. But the reason governments enshrine these rights in legislation is that employers typically do not voluntarily comply with such standards. One consequence of eliminating these rights is that paid farm work will become even less attractive than it already is, thereby likely heightening the existing farm labour shortage.

Further, Bill 26 extends the definitions of agricultural operations to include mushroom farms, sod farms, nurseries and green houses. This change increases the number of workers whose rights have been taken away. The small number of farm workers on farms with 6 or more workers (and thus who continue to fall within the ambit of the Code) continue to have no protections around hours of work and rest periods, or access to overtime provisions.

Scope of Exclusions

The government has not released any public estimates of how many workers are employed in operations of five and fewer employees and, thus, will be excluded from employment standards and mandatory injury insurance. The best source of data on agricultural employment is Statistics Canada’s Agricultural Census. We can use this data to estimate the impact of Bill 26.

The 2016 Agricultural Census suggests there were 33,498 paid farm workers employed on 9,565 farms, yielding an average of 3.5 workers per farm. These workers are evenly split between full-year and part-year (i.e., seasonal) positions. Of the 9,565 farms that employed paid workers, 3,472 farms (36.3%) employed solely part-year workers. The other farms employed some combination of full-year and part-year workers.

The Census data does not perfectly map onto the categories proposed in Bill 26. For example, the Census totals include paid family members (other than owner/operators), who are explicitly excluded from the calculations in Bill 26. And the category of part-year employment does not perfectly map onto the “employed for six consecutive months” criterion of Bill 26. Further, the average number of employees is likely to mask significant differences between a small number of large and/or labour-intensive operations (with more than 3.5 workers each) and a very large number of operations with fewer than 3.5 workers each.

That said, we can draw some tentative conclusions based upon this data:
  • Almost all employees on farms that employ only part-year workers will be excluded from employment standards and mandatory injury insurance because these employees will be excluded from the employee count due to the short duration of their employment and, thus, will push the farm below the “more than 5” threshold.
  • Many workers on farms with at least some full-year employees will also be excluded because the farm will still be below the “more than five” threshold.
I would estimate that Bill 26 will exclude workers on 80% of farms from basic employment rights guaranteed in legislation and the requirement to have at least some form of injury insurance.

Absence of Rationale

Bill 26 will have a significant deleterious effect on farm workers, who are already economically vulnerable. Oddly, there is seemingly no compelling reason to make these changes. In the press release announcing Bill 26, the government asserts that the bill “fulfils the government’s commitment to consult with farmers and ranchers to build farm workplace legislation that works for them.”

This rationale ignores that the purpose of employment legislation is primarily to protect workers from, and attenuate the consequences of, exploitative and injurious work. Bill 26 entirely ignores the primary purpose of employment law. Instead, the government emphasizes the need to minimize the direct and indirect costs of regulation for employers in order to address the “damaging policies of the previous government to ensure sustainable farms.”

There is, however, no evidence that the provision of basic employment rights to farm workers in 2015 resulted in significant economic harm to agricultural employers. For example, there has been no change in the trajectory of farm numbers, which has been slowly diminishing since the 1940s (mostly through the consolidation of smaller, unviable farms into larger ones).

Obfuscation of Effect

The government’s press release goes out of its way to obscure the actual impact of Bill 26:
  • Allowing farmers to purchase inferior or no injury insurance (thus leaving workers vulnerable to being uninsured or underinsured) is framed as “allow[ing] employers to have choice".
  • The elimination of basic employment rights (e.g., minimum wage, child labour laws, job-protected parental leave) for most farm workers is framed as “reducing regulatory costs” and the practical impact on workers is ignored.
  • Precluding workers from forming or joining a union (thereby violating workers’ freedom of association) is not even mentioned.
  • Eliminating most detailed safety rules (which will make farms less safe) while retaining only the most rudimentary of safety rights is framed as “ensur[ing] basic safety standards on all farms”.
Overall, the government’s communication about Bill 26 has been heavily torqued and the impression it gives about Bill 26’s impact is misleading.


Overall, Bill 26 has three broad effects. First, its strips farm workers of basic employment rights enjoyed by every other worker in Alberta. This includes the right to join or form a union, the right to be enrolled in workers’ compensation, and (for 80%) the possession of basic employment standards rights. It also eliminates the application of most safety rules.

Second, the elimination of farm workers’ right to join or form a union violates these workers’ Charter freedom to associate.

Third, these changes will reduce costs to agricultural employers by transferring them to workers in the form of poorer working conditions. Ironically, a bill touted to “help get Albertans back to work” makes paid farm work less attractive and may further intensify the agricultural labour shortage.

In rolling out Bill 26, the government has intentionally hidden the negative consequences of the bill and ignored the absence of a defensible rationale for these changes. It is difficult to see the changes as anything other than political pandering to farm operators and their allies while punishing vulnerable workers.

-- Bob Barnetson