Tuesday, January 31, 2012

WCB hostage taking analysis

An interesting article has popped up on the Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences about the WCB hostage taking in 2009.

Perceived injustice in injured workers: Analysis of public responses to an injured worker who took Workers’ Compensation Board employees hostage” thematically analyzes the personal narratives about WCB submitted by posters on public news websites in the wake of the Patrick Clayton hostage taking

While the article is not particularly critical (it basically concludes that incorrect worker information is an important factor in worker dissatisfaction with workers’ compensation), the article does have some interesting bits as pieces.

The authors identified six themes evident in reader posts: retribution/retaliation; justice; perceived systemic mistreatment; empathy; disbelief and loss. Perceived systemic mistreatment by the Alberta WCB was present in 84% of narratives reviewed.

While obviously not a statistically generalizable sample, this analysis does suggest significant dissatisfaction among posters. I thought this quote also made a fairly compelling point:
The most evident examples of the degree of suffering, and unbearable suffering, experienced by some of the (posters) were the narratives from family members recounting an injured worker whose retaliatory violence was not directed at the WCB system, but rather appeared internalized to the point of resulting in attempted or completed suicide. (p.7)

Overall, this article is an interesting tin opener into the effect of Alberta’s workers' compensation system on workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rumblings of public-sector wage restraint

Last week, a University of Calgary study on public-sector wage increases made headlines. This week, the premier is musing about public-sector wage freezes in the midst of collective bargaining that doesn’t appear to be going in the direction the government wants.

An interesting corrective to the notion that public-sector wages in Alberta are rising twice as fast as the national average can be found here. In fact, Alberta public-sector wages are rising at roughly the rate of inflation (just like most other provinces)—it is the overall wage bill that is growing quickly.

Among the factors driving this are executive perks that few public sector employees see. One observer has suggested that the authors did not account for the effect of inflation on earnings growth (i.e., they are not using constant dollars) which, consequently, overstates the growth quite significantly .

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Emergency room visits as a proxy for injury numbers?

The under-reporting of workplace injuries is widespread in Canada because governments rely on workers’ compensation claim data. Cameron Mustard and colleagues have released a new study examining the utility of emergency room records for providing a more accurate picture of the frequency of workplace injuries.

Among their findings is the observation that the “frequency of emergency department visits for work-related causes was approximately 60% greater than the annual incidence of accepted lost-time compensation claims” (p. 3). Lost-time claims are among the most serious of workplace-injuries.

This outcome broadly jives with previous research on under-reporting of serious injuries in WCB data. The authors note some important and quite interesting discrepancies between the two data sets on the basis of age and gender.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 20, 2012

Alberta Justice drops 33 OHS charges

The Edmonton Journal is reporting that Alberta Justice has dropped OHSA prosecutions connected to the Big Valley Jamboree stage collapse two-and-a-half years ago. Several workers were injured and one spectator was killed in the collapse.

These charges were laid July 29, 2011, almost two years to the day after the stage collapsed. This delay is fairly typical in Alberta.

How could a two-year long investigation have missed something so significant that all 33 charges would be withdrawn? It is unlikely we’ll ever know.
“After careful review and consultation with Occupational Health and Safety investigators and counsel for the defendants, the Crown concluded that there was not a reasonable likelihood of conviction on any count,” Alberta Justice spokesman Josh Stewart said Friday afternoon.

“It was a complicated case and a number of factors were considered in the course of the ongoing review. Because this case is still before the courts and there exists related civil litigation, it would be inappropriate to get into more detail about the case or the investigation.”

A more troubling question is what message this sends to employers who already know that they stand virtually no chance of being fined when they seriously injure or kill a worker.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Saskatchewan recommends workers' compensation for farm workers

Saskatchewan has just finished a review of its Workers’ Compensation Act and the committee has made 57 recommendations.

The first and most interesting recommendation is that all exclusions to the Act be eliminated. In Saskatchewan, 30% of workers did not have workers’ compensation coverage in 2009. This includes a significant number of farm workers.

The Saskatchewan review panel’s argument is that “no fault coverage for injured workers is a mark of a just society and of improved relationships between business and labour…” (p.5). This was a consensus recommendation among the committee members, who included both employer and worker representatives. It does not look like there were any agricultural representatives on the committee.

In Alberta, somewhere between 10% and 15% of workers fall outside the ambit of workers’ compensation. The true level of exclusion will be somewhat higher due to under-reporting. The list of exclusions is fairly bizarre, encompassing both the safest jobs (e.g., accountants, clergy) and the most dangerous (e.g., farm workers, prostitutes).

The report also makes recommendations regarding injury prevention, including bringing agriculture into the realm of occupational health and safety. (In Alberta, farming is almost entirely unregulated.) It recommends all fines and administrative penalties be retained by the WCB and put toward further injury prevention work.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Temporary foreign worker videos

The Alberta 2012 project (run by the labour-sponsored Alberta Labour history Institute) has just released a video documenting the abuses inherent in Alberta's Temporary Foreign Worker program. You can view the video here.

It is quite powerful to hear the experience of temporary foreign workers and their advocates. It calls into question government MLAs' assertions that temporary foreign workers are adequately protected in Alberta. There is a fair bit of research underway about on this topic but this video really puts a human face to the issue of guest workers, including illegal underground workers.

It is also interesting to see how the provincial and federal governments have colluded with corporations to expand the labour force via immigration in order to cheapen labour and exploit vulnerable foreign nationals.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Teacher bargaining starting to stall?

Teacher bargaining is again in the news, with Minister of Education Thomas Lukaszuk indicating he would like a new contract signed sooner rather than later so he can make a budget-ask of Treasury Board, presumably to cover the costs associated with the deal(s). The current contract expires August 31.
"I need to know what the cost of education will be so that I can make that ask to the Treasury Board," Lukaszuk said. "So, the sooner they reach a deal, the easier it will be for me to still acquire those dollars from the Treasury Board."

It is hard to know what to make of this statement. Lukaszuk likes press coverage, so he may just be talking. But my guess is that bargaining has hit a significant roadblock and he is trying to get it finished before the provincial election is called.

Earlier this month, Lukaszuk retained two lawyers to assist the Alberta Teachers’ Associations and the Alberta School Boards Association to bring the talks (started last fall) to a conclusion. This sort of intervention is often indicative of bargaining beginning to stall. The Minister’s statement can also be read as indicative of bargaining reaching impasse.

This could be politically problematic for the government. An election is expected in March or April. Attracting the votes of teachers’ and their supports could be important in ensuring the Redford government can hold off the Wildrose and retain seats in southern Alberta. Bargaining impasse may incline teachers to withhold electoral support.

Impasse also creates an issue that the Wildrose can exploit. The Wildrose has previously suggested stripping teachers of the right to strike. This is not a discussion the Conservatives can profit from. If Redford refuses to strip teachers of the right to strike (with the spectre of a strike looming), the Wild Rose will draw off hawkish PC votes. If the Conservatives agree to strip teachers of the right to strike to nail down their right flank, they will lose votes from centrist supporters.

This may explain why Lukaszuk is laying the groundwork to blame the parties (not the government) if bargaining fails. Consider this statement:
"I have heard very loud and clear from school boards, from parents, from teachers, that they want long-term, predictable and sustainable funding," Lukaszuk said.

"Well, if I am to deliver on that undertaking, that will mean that I need to know how much the delivery of education will cost."

This is, clearly, a bit of theatrics. It is rare for contractual negotiations to be finished six months before the expiration of a contract. Employers are always forced to guess at what labour will cost in the future. And Alberta budgets are more of a political exercise than a financial one; the government can always build in a cushion or make adjustments later.

Further, the idea that the ATA and ASBA will conclude a long-term agreement with clear financial terms is hard to swallow given Alberta’s boom-bust economy. No one knows what a reasonable settlement will be in three years or five years, which is why the last teachers’ contract indexed pay to the cost of living. I have difficulty believing that teachers would ratify a long-term deal unless the cost-of-living adjustment was either indexed or subject to a wage re-opener.

What this statement does do is pressurize the parties to settle by blaming them for any future funding shortfall or instability because, apparently, a multi-billion dollar organization like the province unable to cope with modest uncertainty in its budget.

“The money might not be there if you don’t settle at a politically convenient time” and “voters—it is not our fault” are the messages the Minister is sending.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, January 16, 2012

Migration to Alberta

I’m doing some research around migrant work and public policy in Alberta for an article and book chapter. One of the books I’ve just finished is Harry Hiller’s Second Promised Land, which examines migration within Canada, with a particular focus on migrants to Alberta.

Hiller’s book examines how migrants view the migration process. This differs from much of literature, which tends to focus on migrants in aggregate and emphasizes economic motives for migration. Hiller teases out the complexities of the decision to migrant and reveals the importance of social factors in this decision.

Hiller also disaggregates migration to Alberta, by examining province-by-province patterns over time. Overall, a most helpful introduction to the phenomenon. The book focuses on the period 1996 to 2002 which touches on the beginning of the period we’re look at but the background material is most helpful.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, January 9, 2012

Guest Post: Asbestos and Canada

The impact of the Canadian asbestos industry has been felt around the world for over 130 years. While asbestos was being produced, asbestos-related diseases grew among the world. Popularly dubbed “white gold”, asbestos is a carcinogen that can lead to devastating health effects over time.

Asbestos is most dangerous when it is airborne. The fiber can be easily ingested and lodge itself in the intestinal track or lungs. Over time the damage can lead to asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma. Workers who handled asbestos are of the highest at risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. Among some of the more common occupations that handled asbestos are construction, insulation, shipyards, plumbers, auto mechanics, pipefitters, and textile works.

Back in November of 2011, asbestos mining in Canada was at a temporary stop. The Lac d’Amiante and Jeffery mines, the last two mines producing asbestos, suspended their operations. Although asbestos is still being traded, opponents to the asbestos industry hope that halt in asbestos production will be more permanent. Due to recent news, this may not be the case.

In December of 2011, the Canadian asbestos industry was almost revitalized when Baljit Chadha, president of Balcorp. Ltd., attempted to secure a $58 million loan to reopen the Jeffery Mine in Asbestos, Canada. The entire instance turned into a public relations fiasco when Chadha wrote an editorial attempting to rationalize asbestos mining with profitability. The editorial received a large amount of criticism from the public and mesothelioma community.

The Lac d’Amiante mine in Quebec has filed for bankruptcy in an attempt to save 350 jobs and resume production. The Jeffery mine is looking at all available options to continue their business as well. Canada has historically worked to defend the asbestos industry. However, with such strong opposition by the public the asbestos industry may eventually fade away due to tighter regulations and economic restrictions.

More than 50 countries have banned asbestos including the entire European Union. As opposition continues to grow asbestos production has been slowly phased into countries with weaker labor laws. These countries will see a rise in asbestos-related diseases over the next few decades as the impact of the asbestos industry stretches across the globe. More resources regarding asbestos and mesothelioma can be found at Asbestos.com, Facebook and Twitter.

-- Ben Leer, Mesothelioma Centre

Ben Leer is the Public Outreach Coordinator for the Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. He has worked towards spreading awareness about asbestos and mesothelioma since 2009. If you are interested in connecting with the him you can find his posts at the Mesothelioma Center Blog, Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Shocker: CFIB wants to reduce injury compensation

Back before Xmas, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) released a report ranking workers’ compensation systems in Canada.

This is fairly typical business-friend lobby-group stuff: quantify some aspects of a social program, build assumptions into the measures that your special interest likes (e.g., low premiums are good) and then release the report like it has some meaning.

Basically the CFIB wants to reduce premium costs by denying compensation for the first three days of injury, reducing the amount of wages replaced and reducing the maximum wages that qualify for replacement.

Vue Weekly did a piece on the reaction in Alberta that is reasonably entertaining reading.

-- Bob Barnetson

CBC interview about OHS prosecutions

Yesterday afternoon I was on the CBC drive-home show chatting about the government’s dismal record on workplace injury prosecutions. You can listen to the six-minute clip here.

I’ve had a couple of follow-on comments questioning why creative sentencing is on the upswing. My sense is that the government prosecutes so few OHS violations that those charges they do lay tend to be slam-dunks (i.e., prosecutors cream the “best” cases).

This allows the government to then go to the company and offer a choice: a long trial with lots of bad media coverage or a quiet guilty plea and the company can then pay the fine to a community group and look philanthropic. Companies then make the obvious choice.

One of the comments I didn’t have time to make during the interview are the bizarre discrepancies in health enforcement in Alberta. For example, riddle me this: why can I go online and find out that my favourite eatery had its cooler temperature two degrees too high and whether they’ve remedied that problem but I can’t go online and find out whether my kid’s employer passed their last safety inspection and, if they didn’t, what potentially life-threatening hazards are in that workplace?

It is a shame that no one from the government was available to comment yesterday on a news story generated by one of the government's own press releases... isn't generating press coverage of news the purpose of issuing a press release? I’ll keep my eyes peeled for any response and publish up a link.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

OHS prosecutions up in 2011

Over the Christmas break, the government rolled out its 2011 occupational health and safety prosecutions. I love how potentially contentious news releases appear over the holidays when no one is paying any attention.

The short version is there were 20 prosecutions in 2011 (although one looks like a prosecution for not paying an earlier creative sentence!) with $3.5m in fines levied. This is a significant increase in prosecutions and fines over 2009 (7 prosecutions, $457k in fines) and 2010 (11 prosecutions, $1.7m in fines) although it lags behind 2008 (22 prosecutions, $5.1m in fines). The offenses span 2003-2008.

There are a couple of notable aspects to these prosecutions. While the number of prosecutions is up, it still pales in comparison to the total number of reported fatalities and serious injuries (about 50,000 per year in Alberta). While my computation skills are a bit dodgy, that means roughly 0.04% of serious injuries are subject to prosecution. Now, admittedly, not all of those injuries entail violations that warrant prosecution.

The reason I point this out, however, is the Minister’s comments on prosecutions:
“My first choice is to have no workplace injuries or fatalities, no charges, and no convictions,” said Dave Hancock, Minister of Human Services. “However, when the law is broken, we need to send strong messages that the health and safety of Albertans must be a priority.”

I think it is fair to ask whether a handful of prosecutions really sends a strong message or acts as a meaningful deterrent for employers? My sense is that it doesn’t—these serve more as show trials that make the government appear like it cares about workplace injury than a meaningful effort to prevent injuries or punish employers.

Those few employers who get convicted are fined. The government’s press release touts that 67% of the fines have been paid to community groups via creative sentencing. I find myself conflicted about creative sentencing.

On the one hand, the fines can be directed to programs that directly bear upon occupational health and safety. That seems like a good thing. On the other hand, creative sentencing seems to lighten the stigma that should attach to maiming and killing workers via unsafe working conditions. “Oh look what good guys Syncrude are—they paid $365,000 to Keyano College.”

Further, some of these payments go to industry associations. That is to say, basically employers who maimed and killed workers are directing their fine to employer organizations to underwrite the cost of safety programming that employers ought to pay for themselves as part of their obligation to operate safely under the Act. That seems wrong.

If one purpose of prosecution is indeed to deter employers from organizing work unsafely, it seems to me that there ought to be more prosecutions (or some sort of penalty short of prosecution) such that employers have a reasonable chance to being penalized for violating OHS laws.

And, where an employer has been done something to result in a conviction, the fines should be significant. Yes, $100k+ fines seem significant to you or me, but not to large employers. One of my correspondents has indicated that fines can even be deducted from revenue (i.e., are a tax write off). I’m having a hard time believing that is true, but perhaps I am na├»ve.

Perhaps more effective (since injuries show little sign of significant abatement after a decade of government attention) might be using the provisions for prosecution under the Criminal Code to seek jail time for negligent employers. If prosecution is supposed to be a deterrent and we accept the government is only going to prosecute a fraction of all cases, perhaps the spectre of jail time will motivate employers to improve their safety practices.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Coming Population Crash

Over the holidays I worked my way through a few books. Most were trashy fiction but I did run across The Coming Population Crash while wandering the shelves of my local library. The crux of Fred Pearce’s book is that birth rates have dropped significantly and, in developing countries, are frequently below the replacement rate. He predicts a global population plateau just below 8 billion and a population drop to 5 billion by 2100.

Pearce canvasses a number of issues in the book, including evaluating the uncharitable assumptions of Malthus about the poor (of which we continue to see echoes in right-wing policy). Some reviewers have called him overly optimistic—I was certainly struck by his optimism (a nice change!)—a bit light on analysis and prediction. There are two implications in the book for labour policy and human resource management.

The first is that, in developed countries where the cost of social reproduction is mostly borne by women (i.e., women face a choice between having children and having a career), women are increasingly opting to have a career. This creates the conditions for (and in some cases the fact of) a population crash. By contrast, in countries with social policy that supports women, women choose to have children.

Australia is an interesting example. Unsupportive social policy over the past 30 years (which an analysis of generational effects suggests were unnecessary ) now faces a significant baby deficit, which has ripple on effects for the future labour force and the tax base. How a country that is relatively xenophobic towards immigrants (at least non-Anglo immigrants) will cope with that is an open question.

This leads to the second implication: developing countries will increasingly rely upon immigration (or, in cases like Alberta, perhaps migration) in order to maintain their workforce and population. Pearce provides an accessible but nuanced consideration of migration at the macro-level, attempting to dispel uncharitable assumptions about migrants and migration (shades of Malthus!). Overall, a pleasant read and reasonable introduction to the inter-relationships between birth rates, public policy, the environment and migration.

-- Bob Barnetson