Friday, April 30, 2021

Presentation: Science fiction and organized labour

An interesting presentation by Olav Rokne about the the presence and absence of unions in science fiction.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Proposed changes to joint committee rules in OHS Code review

Alberta made sweeping changes to the OHS Act last year with Bill 47. Most of the OHS changes will take effect in September. Among these changes were significant rollbacks to the language around joint health and safety committees. At that time, the changes included:
  • Employers determine who sits on the committees, instead of workers electing or unions appointing the worker representatives. This allows employers to appoint compliant worker members.
  • Rules specifying the need for co-chairs (one worker and one employer), the development of procedures by the committee, meeting quorum and schedules, duration of membership, public posting of membership, and training requirements have been removed from the act. Combined with employer control over who sits on these committees, these omissions mean employers will control the committees.
  • The duties of JHSC have been reduced to receiving worker concerns, participating in the employer’s hazard assessment process, making non-binding recommendations, and reviewing inspection results. Of particular concern is the absence of any requirement for workers to participate in regular worksite inspections or the investigation of serious injuries and incidents. The right to inspect is an important duty and enshrined in most other provinces.
  • The requirement for regular (i.e., quarterly) worksite inspections appears to have been eliminated from the act.
Alberta is presently consulting on changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Code. One of the elements of the Code that is under review is the provisions for Joint OHS Committees. The consultation includes possible new wording. These proposals suggest the new OHS Code may contain some of the provisions previously eliminated from the Act. The shuffle of provisions is challenging to track, but here is my best effort.

  • Membership: Worker reps will be selected by workers or the union(s) (in a unionized workplace). A new provision would allow the employer to select worker reps if the workers/union(s) refuse. There remain no rules about the duration of membership. 
  • Terms of reference: The legislation is now silent on who establishes the rules by which the committee operates (previously this was jointly determined). This opens the door to the employer establishing the terms of reference unless the worker representatives can (somehow) resist this.
  • Co-chairs: Each “side” chooses its own co-chair but the requirement for alternate chairing of meetings is not present. Neither is the assertion that chairs can participate as full committee members (that may be a minor point).
  • Posting: The Code appears to restore the requirement that the employer post the names and contact info of committee members (although the committee can agree to alternatives to physical posting). There appear to be no requirement to post minutes such that workers can see them.
  • Quorum: The quorum requirements would be re-established. But it would no longer be explicit that meetings held and business transacted in the absence of quorum would be void.
  • Meetings: The Code allows OHS officers to convene a special meeting of the committee. There continues to no longer be any requirement for the committee to meet (ever!).
  • Inspections: The requirement for the committee (or anyone) to inspect the workplace quarterly has not been replaced and there is no requirement for the committee (or anyone) to inspect the workplace ever.
  • Training: Provisions requiring committee members take OHS training approved by the Minister are dropped and replaced with a general obligation on the employer to ensure committee members are competent to do the work of the committee. The requirement that workers be paid for taking training would be eliminated. 
These proposed changes to the OHS Act remedy some of the gaps left by Bill 47. But the following issues remain unaddressed:
  • The duties of JHSC remain very narrow (i.e., to receiving worker concerns, participating in the employer’s hazard assessment process, making non-binding recommendations, and reviewing inspection results) and this will further limit the effectiveness of committees. 
  • There is no requirement for the committee to meet (let alone regularly), for workers to participate in regular worksite inspections (or, indeed for any inspections to occur ever), or for workers the investigation of serious injuries and incidents. 
  • Training will be left to employer fiat and, if any training is offered, there is no requirement to pay workers for taking training. 
In effect, Bill 47 and these proposed changes leave Alberta’s nascent and weak OHS committees even weaker and less effective than they were before. This reinforces my belief that Labour minister Jason Copping’s assertion that Bill 47 was about “improving safety for Alberta workers” was misleading. Bill 47 was about reducing costs to employers and rendering committees less able to identify workplace hazards and push for remedy. This will result in workplaces becoming less safe.

As an OHS committee member, I wonder why I would bother to participate in such a hollow, ineffective system? It would be a much better use of my time to organize workers to do their own inspections and then orchestrate mass work refusals.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Why sectorial bargaining never takes off

The Spring 2020 issue of Labour/Le Travail included an interesting article entitled “Broader-based and sectoral bargaining in collective bargaining law reform: A historical review.” Sectoral bargaining is an alternative (actually, many alternatives) to the decentralized unionism (i.e., a single-employer bargain as with a single union over conditions at a single worksite) that as the norm in Canada.

It is often mooted as a mechanism that could offer significant benefits to workers, particularly those in small workplaces or facing precarious employment, when site-based unionization isn’t viable. There are examples of sectoral bargaining (e.g., Alberta construction registrations system) but it is not the norm and is not available to most workers.

Author Sara Slinn examines the history of labour law reform in English-speaking Canada to understand why sectoral bargaining has never really taken off. She suggests that employer resistance is part of the explanation, but recent resistance has been more moderate this historical resistance.

She suggests other explanatory factors include union resistance. This reflects concerns about losing representational rights (which I think we can understand as a proxy for members and dues), concern that multi-union arrangements may dilute individual union’s bargaining power, and concerns ab out interjurisdictional fights between unions over work. My casual observation of Alberta’s construction industry bargaining suggests these concerns are likely reasonable.

These concerns, suggests Slinn, may make labour centrals reluctant to push this issue. Governments, expecting employer resistance and not getting any pressure from labour, sensibly opt to ignore sectoral bargaining. Overall, this article makes a persuasive case about the politics that shape the uptake on this interesting idea.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Sugaring and sex work

A few years back, Briarpatch magazine did an interesting piece on sex workers working around the closure of online sites to connect with clients by American legislation, such as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. One website that continued to function was “Seeking Arrangements”, which connected sex workers and clients in longer term arrangements (often called sugardaddying/babying).

One interesting aspect of the article is that it explores this form of sex work in the content of precarious work (or the gig economy), noting how the criminalization of sex work intensifies the exploitability of these workers. The framing of sugarbabying as “dating” is also used to reduce the income of these sex workers.
“I don’t know if this is a hot take or not, but sugar babies should just hook,” [said] … . “They make less money than escorts. I want them to make more than they do.”
Essentially, argues the article, clients seek to manipulate sex workers into taking a lower wage. And the atomizing nature of sugaring sites means it is difficult for sex workers to share info about wage rates or unsafe clients.

-- Bob Barnetson