Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A Christmas Carol from an organizing perspective

The blog Organizing Work ran an interesting piece last week interrogating how worker organizing could have altered the trajectory of the story in A Christmas Carol (delightfully, using the Muppet version). 

The post contains several astute observations, including that the workers manage to get a day off for Christmas from Scrooge by acting collectively and without the aid of supernatural forces.

What I enjoyed the most in the film was the overt shit-talking about the terrible character of the boss 9see the clip above). While it is easy to excuse a boss's behaviour as a function of structural pressures (e.g., the profit imperative), it is important not to lose sight of the fact that bosses have agency and could behave better than they do if they so wished.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Decriminalizing sex work would make sex workers safer

This post was originally published on the AU Hub in conjunction with the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Sex Workers.

It is both legal and dangerous to sell sex in Canada. One factor that makes sex workers vulnerable to violence is how the government regulates sex work. While selling sex is legal, buying sexual services and assisting in the sale or purchase of sexual services is not. This regulatory approach stigmatizes sex work and thereby increases sex workers’ risk. Fully decriminalizing the purchase and sale of sexual services—a demand supported by sex workers and 150 human rights groups—would help reduce the risk of violence.

Canada’s current approach to regulating sex work is often called the Nordic model. It assumes sex work is socially undesirable and that the demand for sexual services can be extinguished by sanctioning clients. The impact of the Nordic model on sex workers’ safety is complicated.

Sex workers and authors Juno Mac and Molly Smith note that sex workers typically have a greater need to sell sexual services (e.g., to put food on the table) than buyers do to purchase it. Criminalizing clients can reduce demand. This, in turn, forces sex workers to take on clients they might otherwise refuse or meet them in circumstances that heighten the risk of violence. Criminalizing those who could provide assistance to sex workers working safely (e.g., security staff, call services, drivers) also increases the risk of violence for sex workers.

In theory, the Nordic model is supposed to result in sex workers finding other sources of income. (In Nordic countries, this model is paired with a more complete social safety net than is presently available in Canada). In Canada, “straight” jobs are often unavailable (that’s why sex workers sell sex) or unworkable (e.g., due to childcare or health issues).

Sex workers can also be reluctant to access existing income support programs for fear of triggering the interest of other government agencies, such as children’s services or the tax department. For example, some sex workers’ reluctance to access federal income supports during COVID-19 reflects their concerns about becoming visible to the state.

Consequently, sex workers say that what Canada’s laws do is pressure sex workers to work less safely and render illegal many of the strategies sex workers can use to make themselves less vulnerable to violence. These laws are presently due for a five-year review.

Fully decriminalizing sex work—where any adult can purchase sexual services—would allow sex workers to work more safely (e.g., in cooperatives, in safer locations, with access to security and other business services). Decriminalization would also lower the barriers faced by sex workers wishing to access state services, such as medical care and income support services.

New Zealand decriminalized most sex work in 2003. Decriminalization is not a panacea. Sex workers still report facing stigma and violence, especially racialized, migrant, and trans sex workers. They still cannot necessarily access law enforcement protection safely. And many other laws and policies (e.g., zoning, licensing, advertising) still make life difficult for sex workers.

And, where sex work occurs in the context of an employment relationship, sex workers are still subject to the usual indignities and exploitation that can be found in any workplace. They may also still be subject to the abuses sex workers tend to experience in employment relationships specifically because they’re sex workers, and which occur in the sex industry under all regulatory frameworks.

But decriminalization does appear to result in better working conditions for sex workers. It also offers more accessible pathways to different work (e.g., through income support programs). If combined with a more fulsome social safety net, it might result in a significant reduction in sex work overall. New Zealand’s experience offers useful guidance about how the government can meaningfully reduce the risk of violence faced by sex workers—one driven by data rather than by stigma.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Research: Casinos and captive labour markets

The journal Labour/Le Travail recently published a very interesting case study about the experiences of workers at Casino Windsor. You can read the full text of the article here.

Casinos are often mooted as tools of economic diversification, providing relatively high-waged service industry jobs. This was a part of the back story of the opening of Casino Windsor and, initially, the casino did provide good jobs, particularly to women. Over time, though, economic pressure resulted in declining working conditions.

The workers at the casino faced labour immobility due to high unemployment and the absence of comparable wages elsewhere. This dynamic essentially creates a captive labour market, argues author Alissa Mazar, where the workers are stuck in their job. The employer knows this and uses aggressive disciplining to pressurize workers to perform.

Few options and fear of job loss has meant workers have internalizing the need to provide high quality customer service, despite poor treatment. Essentially, they exert discretionary effort in the hope that it will keep their livelihood intact and the employer uses this extra effort to reduce labour costs.

Mazar’s case study raises numerous questions about the value of casinos as economic engines, particularly when the state constraints the number of casinos and thus creates a captive labour force for the employer.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Useful post on workplace organizing

For the past year or so, I’ve been involved in some workplace organizing. Organizing is very much different from the more legalistic/bureaucratic union work that I’ve done. While a lot of basic labour relations knowledge and skills transfer well enough, organizing has required a real shift my thinking and approach. I’ve been fortunate to have good teachers.

With the heat momentarily off, I’ve been taking stock of what I'd learned. Coincidentially, I happened across an excellent post about mistakes that labour organizers make on the blog Organizing Work. Two of the mistakes that really resonated with me are “Focusing on where you are strong instead if where you are weak” and “Building your campaign out of like-minded people”.

Working with like-minded people is easy because there are fewer disputes about basic facts or values or approaches. But limiting oneself to like-minded folks impedes building a broad, member-driven power base (which is the point of organizing). There are a limited number of like-minded people in any organization. Not all like-minded people are effective or reliable activists. And many folks with very different values can be very effective activists on issues they care about.

The thing is, talking to differently minded people—and accepting their feedback (which is sometimes good and sometimes not)—is hard (both intellectually and emotionally). This dynamic likely contributes to my tendency to focus organizing where we are strong, rather where we are weak. It is also often easier to increase the intensity of existing support than it is to build support in areas where there isn’t much. For example, existing supporters often share interests. Opposed members often have different interests (or, at least, common interests are harder to see).

For example, there is an area in my workplace where the union has mixed support among its members. The workers in this area hold jobs that mean they sometimes experience some spill-over effects from the union’s direct action tactics. There are some quiet union supporters in this area. But they are reluctant to voice support because of the presence of a small number of powerful and vocal opponents of the union and/or its tactics.

The easiest approach to this situation is just to write the members in that area off. From a cost-benefit approach, the effort necessary to bring the vocal opponents on board (including possibly losing access to effective direct-action tactics) is likely not worth gaining what will, at least at first, likely be tepid and tenuous support.

Emotionally, this approach is also easy. Watching members in this area deride the tactics that are literally keeping them in the union (which materially benefits them) is very aggravating. Conversely, knowing that their behaviour makes these opponents likely to be among the first to get carved out of the union (because the employer will see them as easy targets) is discomfortingly gratifying.

But that approach isn’t really constructive or effective in the long run. It doesn’t find common ground upon which to build a base of power with which to oppose the employer’s behaviour. The better (but harder) approach is to engage with these workers. They do have interests in common with the broader membership. They also have the potential to make effective contributions to direct action. Further, addressing their opposition will make it possible to more quickly and thoroughly normalize the greater member engagement and activism that is emerging.

So hat’s off (once again) to Organizing Work for another useful contribution.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Bill 47 reduces compensation for work-related injuries

This post previously appeared on the Parkland Institute Blog.

On Nov. 5, 2020, Alberta’s United Conservative government introduced Bill 47 (Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, 2020). Bill 47 makes substantial changes to the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act and the Workers’ Compensation Act and contains new legislation creating a payment for first responders who die from work-related causes. This is the second of two blog posts examining Bill 47. This post focuses on changes to the Workers’ Compensation Act which, if passed, will come into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Overall, Bill 47’s changes to workers’ compensation will save employers money by reducing the likelihood of workers receiving benefits when injured and reducing the value of those benefits. Bill 47 also makes it more difficult for workers to appeal decisions and reduces the likelihood they will return to their job once recovered from their injury.


Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Act provides for compensation to workers who are injured on the job. Compensation is funded by employer premiums and the act is administered by the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). This act was also amended in 2017 to increase wage-loss benefits and index them to inflation, require employers to return workers to their job after recovery, and make it easier for workers to navigate the WCB.

Lower Compensation for Injury

Presently, when injured workers experience a wage loss, they are eligible to receive WCB benefits of 90 per cent of any lost net income. That is to say, injured workers receive $9 from the WCB for every $10 in income they lose due to a compensable injury. Bill 47 alters this arrangement in three ways.

First, Bill 47 eliminates from the Act the 90 per cent compensation rate. In its place, Bill 47 permits the WCB to determine the rate at which compensation will be paid. The only plausible reason for the government to give the WCB this discretion is to allow the WCB to lower the compensation rate at some future point.

Second, Bill 47 allows the WCB to establish a maximum income ceiling for compensation. Prior to 2018, this maximum was set at $98,700 and any wages lost above the maximum were not compensated. In 2018, the New Democratic government eliminated this maximum to recognize many Alberta workers earned more than the maximum and should not be penalized if injured. Reinstating a cap will reduce wage-loss benefits (as well as employer premiums, which are driven by claims costs) in high-wage industries.

Third, permanent wage-loss benefits are currently indexed to the Alberta Consumer Price Index. Indexing means the purchasing power of wage-loss benefits are not eroded by inflation. Bill 47 gives the WCB the power to set the annual inflationary adjustment. The WCB is directed to maintain “approximate parity with the cost of living.”

When the WCB had this power prior to 2018, it indexed benefits to CPI minus 0.5 per cent. Workers with permanent wage losses (as well as dependents of workers killed on the job) saw their purchasing power decline over time. The longer they received benefits, the worse loss they experienced. Again, the only plausible explanation for offering the WCB this flexibility is to allow the WCB to set rates below inflation and thereby reduce the cost of employer premiums.

Limiting Psychological and Disease Claims

Generally speaking, injuries are eligible for compensation if they arise from and occur during the course of employment. Determining whether some injuries meet this “arises and occurs” test can be challenging. For example, some occupational diseases have long latency periods and murky causality. These sorts of injuries are sometimes “deemed” to be compensable by the WCB. If you have the injury and worked in a specified industry (sometimes for a specified length of time), your claim is automatically accepted.

There is a list of deemed diseases in the Workers’ Compensation Regulation. Prior to 2018, this list had not been meaningfully updated since 1982. In 2018, a committee was struck to periodically review new medical evidence and recommend changes. Bill 47 disbands this committee and simply charges the minister with a review every 10 years. Given the speed of medical research, updating the list every 10 years is unfair to workers.

Whether a psychological injury is compensable can also be tricky to determine. In 2018, the Workers’ Compensation Act was amended such that psychological injuries were deemed to be compensable if (1) a worker was exposed to a traumatic event in the course of work and (2) was diagnosed with a psychological injury unless (3) the injury was proven not to have arisen and occurred from work. Bill 47 eliminates this deeming of psychological injuries. This means workers will need to prove psychological injuries arose and occurred from work. This will be a very difficult threshold for many injured workers to meet.


In 2018, the Workers’ Compensation Act was amended to create an obligation on employers to re-employ injured workers when workers were able to return to their duties. Prior to this, workers’ only recourse if their employer sacked them after an injury was a lengthy (around two years) process with the Human Rights Commission. After 2018, employers who illegitimately did not comply with their return to work obligation faced financial penalties. Bill 47 entirely does away with this obligation. This change is profoundly out of step with the Canadian norm.

Bill 47 also creates specific obligations on workers to co-operate with the WCB in vocational and other rehabilitation plans. Workers who don’t co-operate can have their benefits cut off. While this may sound reasonable, the history of vocational and other rehabilitation at the WCB suggests there is a significant risk the WCB will use this power in ways that reduce workers’ compensation (in order to lower employer premiums) or force workers to accept modified work plans that may damage their health.

Appeal System

Workers’ compensation claims are complex. Workers who are dissatisfied with the adjudication of their claim often face an uphill battle navigating a complicated set of policies and appeal steps. Further, the 2017 review of the WCB identified that the WCB had a “culture of denial” around claims and that the internal appeal process may have worked against workers’ interests. In 2018, a Fair Practices Office was set up to create some distance between the WCB and the internal appeal bodies, as well as to help workers navigate the appeal process.

Bill 47 largely scraps this new process. It also tightens the timelines on when a worker can appeal a decision and allows the appeal bodies discretion about whether to suspend the termination of wage-loss and other benefits while an appeal is under way.

Heroes Fund

Bill 47 contains within it a new act entitled the Heroes’ Compensation Act. This act provides for the payment of $100,000 to the dependents of any first responder or corrections officer who dies as a consequence of their work. This payment is in addition to the fatality payment any workers’ dependents receive when a worker dies, as well as any wage-loss payments for which those dependent may be eligible. There are, on average, 10 fatalities among first responders per year. Of these fatalities, approximately 90 per cent were firefighters who died from occupational diseases.

This new benefit broadly mirrors an existing Government of Canada program (the Memorial Grant Program for First Responders). This federal program provides $300,000 payments to families of firefighters, police officers and paramedics who die as a result of their duties. Additionally, these workers are also almost entirely unionized and, consequently, have life insurance as part of their benefit packages.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Canadian workers gave up their right to sue their employer for work-related injuries in exchange for stable, predictable and immediate compensation. Over time, workers’ compensation has expanded to include more workers (such as women). More kinds of injuries are also compensated, as our understanding of the negative consequences of work deepens.

Alberta’s legislation long lagged behind the Canadian norm, reflecting a history of conservative governments and agencies that were essentially captured by employer lobbyists. The 2018 changes to WCB brought Alberta’s laws into alignment with the Canadian norms. Bill 47 reverses many of these changes.

Labour Minister Jason Copping suggested that Bill 47 is designed to “restor[e] balance and fairness to the workers’ compensation system to meet the needs of workers and job creators now and in the future.” This is half true. Employers will benefit from Bill 47 through lower premiums. (It is notable that Minister Copping ignores that lower premiums reduces employers’ incentives make workplaces safer.)

The cost of this will be borne by workers. Under Bill 47, workers will be less likely to have their injuries compensated, their benefits will be reduced, their access to the appeals system will be impeded, and they will be less likely to return to their pre-injury job. In effect, this is a return to the state of affairs pre-2018, where the WCB was effectively a creature of employers and had a culture of claims denial.

The Heroes Fund will benefit relatively few workers, who are mostly well insured men. The most useful way to see the Heroes Fund is as a craven PR exercise. By providing marginal increases to valorized workers, the government can deflect attention away from changes that financially benefit employers while making workplaces more dangerous for workers and reducing the compensation paid out when workers are injured.

-- Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster