Thursday, March 31, 2011

Labour law after labour?

Harry Arthurs has published an interesting paper addressing what might happen to labour law given the apparent decline of labour as a class. This paper is available for download here. There are no answers set out in Arthurs' paper but it provides a fascinating read about the implications of declining class consciousness for labour law.

Arthurs advances three potential visions for labour law, each integrating labour law into a larger project. One option is to link it to some sort of constitutionalized human rights project--a popular prescription among some academics (and unpopular among others!).

A second option is to examine human capital narratives to see if collaboration between workers and employers can provide a path forward. Given the basic conflicts embedded in capitalist employment relationships, this seems like a bit of a reach. The third option is to link labour law with some sort of broader social movement approach.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, March 28, 2011

Interview on CKUA

CKUA Radio's March 13th episode of Bookmark (starting at 14:30) interviewed me regarding my recent book The political economy of workplace injury in Canada. This book is available for free as a e-book via Athabasca University Press.

The interview has some good stats on actual injury rates in Alberta and a nice discussion of government regulation. A little (or lot!) more Marxist than you might normally hear on the Alberta airwaves.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York--a pivotal event in the development of the development of safety laws and the founding of the middle class in the United States.

The National Labour Committee has put together a video that commemorates this factory fire.

The video then turns our attention to how working conditions in developing world now are worse that working conditions in New York 100 years ago. The video is a fairly graphic and very moving.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, March 14, 2011

New farm safety advisory council named

Alberta has proven unwilling to extend basic employment laws--including health and safety protections--to agricultural workers. This is becoming a public-relations problem as Alberta is the last hold out province in the country and even judges (who typically stay out of policy debates) are now opining there is no justification for such an exclusion.

The government's most recent effort to address this issue is to create a Farm Safety Advisory Council. The government news release reads in part:
The new Farm Safety Advisory Council will work on ways to reduce injuries on farms and ranches, and advise the government on how to enhance farm safety education and training.

“The Council brings together individuals from varied backgrounds, who are known and respected in their field, and have a demonstrated commitment to farm safety,” said Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Jack Hayden.

“I know this well-rounded group will help us make significant progress toward the goal of reducing farm injuries without increasing the regulatory and financial burden for producers.”

Two observations are warranted. First, of the 15 members, 13 are employers, one is from government and one represents workers. Limiting worker representation to a single voice pretty much guarantees that the interests of workers will be overshadowed by the interests of employers.

Second, the government is clearly stating that it wants to reduce farm injuries. But it wants to do so without increasing the regulatory or financial burden for producers. Thus we return once again to the well of education and public awareness.

If the current state of injury in agriculture is unacceptable after years of such programming, isn't doing more of the same a recipe for failure--at least in terms of the goal of reducing injuries?

Perhaps that is, indeed, the purpose of such an advisory council. It creates the impression Alberta is doing something to reduce farm-related injuries and deaths without really changing anything. This is a neat (and cynical) bit of policy work by some Agriculture staffer. But will the families of farm workers who have be killed and maimed this year think so?

Update: A few minutes after posting this, a new article came across my desk: "Does the small farm exemption cost lives?" in the American journal of industrial medicine. The short version is that in states which do not enforce the national OHS rules on small US farms, the fatality rate is 1.6 to 3 times higher than in the small number of states where OHS rules are enforced. State-designed occupational safety and health programs do not seem to affect the outcome. This is more evidence that enforcement of safety rules appears to be an important component of injury reduction on farms.

-- Bob Barnetson

What have unions done for you?

A common question HR students ask is why do workers join unions.

Academics have come up with a variety of explanations. Unions provide workers voice. Unions give workers an opportunity to do something else besides their job. Unions give workers procedural justice. Blah, blah blah.

Workers often have a different perspective as outlined in the satirical video below.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 4, 2011

Alberta hires more OHS inspectors

Minister Lukaszuk announced Alberta would be hiring 30 new OHS inspectors over the next next three years. This is a useful improvement, added to the 16 OHS officers hired this year.

According to Lukaszuk, "“I hope this sends a strong message to any company or worker in Alberta who feels the law doesn’t apply to them. That’s 132 officers delivering a message that no company, no individual is above the law.”

But before buying the Minister a beer, let's work through the numbers. If there are 140,000 employers in the province (many with multiple worksites), these hirings will mean (in three years) we'll have 1 inspector per 1060 employers.

If an inspector can inspect 100 different employers per year (with follow up, holidays, meetings, training, etc. factored in) it will take 10-and-a-half years to get around to everyone once. If you knew you were only going to face one speed trap every 10 years, would you obey the speed limit?

Even if an inspector could visit twice that many workplaces--we're still talking about an inspection cycle of once every 5 years. In effect, the chance of getting caught violating the laws is still slim to none.

To be fair, more inspectors is a positive step. But, at best, it makes it (slightly) more probable that an infraction will be caught and thus may (slightly) increase the likelihood that an employer will comply with the safety rules.

The other part of the equation is what happens when someone gets caught violating the law? If you have a look at the OHS prosecutions, you can see the numbers are low--just 11 successful convictions in 2010.

It is hard to know what to make of this number--it has gone down from a high of 22 prosecutions in 2008. The number of workplace injuries gives us some useful context.

Annually there are about 140,000 WCB claims for injuries of various types. The actual number of injuries is likely two or two-and-half times this number--many injuries are not covered, not reported or not counted for various reasons.

These numbers tell us two things. First, Alberta's OHS system is not effective at preventing injury. 140,000 claims for work-related injury is a huge number of injuries. Thirty extra inspectors does not change that.

Second, if employer violations of safety rules account for even 10% of these injuries (a hyper conservative estimate), the chance of getting convicted is still one in more than a thousand.

Effectively there is no chance of being caught and no sanction if you are caught. It is little wonder safety non-compliance is rampant.

-- Bob Barnetson