Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Meredith hearings redux and leading indicators

Rabble.ca is reporting on new hearings in workers' compensation in Ontario, marking the 100th anniversary of Sir William Meredith's report ushering in injury compensation in Ontario. The report of these hearings will be unveiled Friday at the No Half Measures conference (yay!) in Don Mills (meh...) that I'll be speaking at.

In other workplace injury news, the Institute for Work and Health has released an interim report on their quest for leading indicators of workplace injury. Unlike injury rates (which are a trailing indicator), leading indicators are characteristics of workplaces that precede injuries and, if changed, affect injury outcomes.

In theory, leading indicators are a kind of holy grail. In practice, their development is proving difficult (as befits a questing metaphor!).

The lack of evidence that any feasible indicators exist raises questions about government interest in them: perhaps the demand for leading indicators is just another way to distract us from criticism about rampant noncompliance and ineffective enforcement?

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, October 28, 2013

More union advertising

Following up on last week's post of CLC and UFCW ads, below is the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees latest ad attacking government policy and, more directly, the broken promises of the Redford government.

These ads are nicely timed with Redford's leadership review and are clearly aimed at heightening the political costs of public sector cuts. The Alberta Teachers' Association has also come out swinging.

It is interesting to see how deeply and quickly Redford has alienated public-sector unions that supported her in the last election.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 25, 2013

The construction of migrant work and workers by Alberta legislators, 2000-2011

The construction of migrant work and workers by Alberta legislators, 2000-2011
Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University
Transforming Citizenship: Ethnicity, Transnationalism and Belonging in Canada Conference
Edmonton. 25 October 2013
Like many jurisdictions, Alberta’s population of international migrant workers grew significantly between 2000 and 2011 (Foster 2012). An earlier examination Jason and I performed on the discourse around temporary and permanent international migrants hinted at a seeming contradiction: the government members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) often seemed bullish on migrant work, but critical of migrant workers (Barnetson and Foster 2013).
The study I’ll be presenting today is a narrative analysis of MLA statements. Narrative analysis examines how stories categorize, name and label things and, in doing so, construct a particular view of the world. The view these politicians construct of migrant work and migrant workers is important because this view informs public policy—in effect, state action and inaction—which affects all workers.
What our analysis found were four main narratives. MLAs were quite supportive of migrant work, asserting (1) that it was economically necessary and (2) that it didn’t pose any threat to Canadian workers. By contrast, MLAs were critical of international migrant workers, asserting that (3) they had questionable occupational, linguistic or cultural skills and that (4) their transience caused negative social and economic impacts on Alberta.
In short, we found pretty clear evidence of seemingly contradictory views of migrant work and workers among Alberta policy makers. So then we tried to make sense of this contradiction. What I propose to do today is give you a brief overview of the evidence for four narratives as well as our initial thoughts on how this seeming contradiction can be understood.
Migrant Work as Economically Necessary
MLAs repeatedly asserted that (1) there was a labour shortage that (2) had to be addressed to maintain economic growth by (3) increasing the number of temporary and permanent Canadian and international migrant workers. The clearest expression of this view is in the 2006 throne speech:
His Honour: …Alberta will take immediate steps to address labour shortages that threaten economic growth. …The government will develop a new strategy to increase awareness of Alberta as a destination of choice for skilled immigrants, and it will expand immigrant settlement services and language training and make it easier for foreign-trained professionals to work in Alberta (Alberta 2006).
The view that migrant work is economically necessary supposes Alberta’s labour shortage was an absolute shortage—there were no more Canadian workers available. Examining unemployment among Canadians in traditional sending provinces as well as among traditionally under-represented groups suggests this was not true. Instead, what Alberta faced was a relative labour shortage—there were no more Canadian workers willing to make themselves available for prevailing wage rates and working conditions.
This is an important distinction because it identifies a feedback loop between labour shortages and migrant work. The loop begins when employers don’t raise wages and don’t improve working conditions to attract Canadian workers because they know that international migrant workers will accept the conditions employers are offering. This keeps Canadian workers out of the workforce and thus creates the so-called labour shortage that is used to justify expanding the number of international migrant workers. In turn, growth in the ranks of international migrant workers allow employers to maintain existing wage and working conditions, thereby perpetuating the so-called labour shortage. Employers benefit from this arrangement because it minimizes their labour costs.
Migrant Work as No Threat to Canadians
MLAs also presented the growth in international migrant workers posing no threat to the employment of Canadians. This assertion is premised upon MLAs’ position that there was a labour shortage (so there were jobs for everyone) and MLAs’ belief that the federal Labour Market Opinion (LMO) process prevented employers from replacing Canadians with international migrant workers:
Mr. Cardinal: The first priority for… our government… is to hire Albertans first wherever possible, Canadians second…. When an employer has exhausted that, then they have an opportunity to apply through the federal government to bring in foreign workers…. It’s definitely not a top priority for industries, definitely not a top priority for our government… who like to see our own local people working first (Alberta 2005b). then-Minister of Human Resources and Employment Mike Cardinal
In addition to the question about whether there was an absolute or relative shortage of Canadian workers, there is significant evidence that employers could and did game the federal LMO process (Auditor General 2009, Foster and Taylor 2011).
MLAs also routinely presented international migrant work as a temporary measure:
Dr. Oberg: Lastly, the whole idea behind a temporary foreign worker is… to take these workers, bring them over here for a temporary period of time when they are needed, when there is the workforce boom that is going on, when we can’t supply it, and then at the end of three years they have to go home. They cannot stay. They do not become landed immigrants. They must go home at that time (Alberta 2005a). 
It is true that individual international migrant workers must leave Canada four years. But, it is also true that, as a group, international migrant workers have become a permanent and growing feature of Canada’s labour market. For example, Alberta’s cohort of international migrants under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) increased from 11,376 in 2003 to 68,339 in 2012 (Citizenship and Immigration Canada 2013). Even during the recession of 2008 to 2010, the number of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) did not decline and, in fact, TFWs displaced interprovincial migrants as the main source of additional workers during that time (Alberta 2011a, 2011b).
Migrant Workers as Unskilled
Interestingly, MLAs had very little to say about migrant workers. They said almost nothing about interprovincial migrants in the entire 12 years of data. When MLAs did talk about international migrant workers, they were highly critical of these workers’ occupational skills:
Mr. Norris: … I know that you have cab drivers who say: I’m an engineer from a specific country; I can’t get a job. Don’t believe everything you hear, hon. member, because we make every effort to allow them to get their training certificates upgraded or pass to what level they need to be. I don’t know if there’s a suggestion being made that we should just take things at face value, because I wouldn’t do that… (Alberta 2004).  
Dr. Oberg: We don’t necessarily want someone saying that they are a welder in a particular country, arriving here, and having no usable trades that can be done. So they are going to be certified in the country before they come over here (Alberta 2005a).
Mr. Lukaszuk: …This ministry has programs in place that assist foreign credentialed individuals to enter our workforce. At the same time, we have to make sure that we don’t jeopardize in any way the standards that we are accustomed to have over here (Alberta 2010). 
MLAs also questioned the validity of medical credentials of permanent international migrants. But such concerns were mediated by these migrants’ country of origin. For example, medically trained international migrants from the UK were often given a pass if their skills weren’t quite up to snuff. And American migrant workers were also seen as more desirable that international migrants from “across (the) oceans”:
Mr. Lukaszuk: (O)ften when we think about foreign workers, we tend to drift away across oceans. I strongly suggest to Alberta employers to give our neighbors to the south first opportunity at any jobs in Alberta. These workers from the United States are not only our partners, our friends, and our allies, but they also have similar occupational health and safety employment standards. There are no language barriers. At the end of the day that’s what neighbours do for neighbours. If we have a surplus of jobs – and they obviously have an economy that will take a long time to recover – we should welcome them with open arms (Alberta 2011c).
MLAs also raised questions about international migrant workers’ cultural and linguistic fluency and, in fact, sometimes attributed the exploitation of international migrant workers in part to the workers’ limited understanding of their rights:
“It’s tough for somebody that comes from a totally different country and different rules and regulations to feel at home on a short-term basis,” Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said last week.
“Many, many don’t know their rights. They don’t know all their responsibilities. They often have a hard time with language” (Calgary Herald 2008).
Overall, international migrant workers are framed as less desirable than Canadian workers. Interestingly, this governmental discourse about undesirable international migrants runs contrary to the behaviour of employers, who went out of their way to hire such workers over Canadians.
Migrants Workers as Societally Harmful
Finally, late in the period of study, some MLAs raised concerns about the transience of international migrant workers. Specifically, they were concerned that temporary international migrant workers do not financially or socially invest in Alberta:
Mr. Lukaszuk: …Well, transient communities would be one answer, individuals who do not purchase houses, cars, who don’t invest in our economy but send remittances back home. There is a social impact on families over here, but just having come back from the Philippines, I had the opportunity to see the other, those families who are left behind by temporary foreign workers. The impact is economic and moral, and it’s immense (Alberta 2011d).
Framing international migrants’ reluctance to socially or financially invest in Alberta as a choice or inherent trait of migrant workers—rather than recognizing this behaviour as the result government-imposed residency limits—demonizes contextually quite rational behaviour by international migrants and essentially blames the victim.
On the surface, the four narratives MLAs advance about migrant work and workers seem to be contradictory: migrant work is good but migrant workers are bad. Yet, viewed together, these narratives can be reconciled as an effort to politically justify growth in Alberta’s international migrant workforce.
Misrepresenting the nature of the labour shortage justified initial increases in international migrants, while providing employers access to a lower-cost and docile labour force. Resistance to increased numbers of international migrants among Canadian workers was overcome by claiming migrant workers posed no labour market threat because they were temporary, they had limited labour mobility, and they could only come if there were no Canadians available.
At the same time, MLAs dehumanized international migrant workers. They were discussed in solely economic terms. They were characterized as unskilled—a characterization with racialized undertones. They were said to pose a threat to Canadian communities—although not Canadian jobs (“don’t worry about those!” say MLAs). Dehumanizing international migrant workers makes them an “other”—a group distinct from Canadians and whose partial citizenship (Sharma 2006, Vosko 2010) and poor treatment (AF 2007, 2009) is justified by their limited economic role in Canada.
So what we see then, are two layers to MLA statements. In part, their statements are political activities designed to manage policy consent and dissent on a day-to-day basis. The seeming contradictions are, in part, a response to different kinds of criticism that MLAs face.
But, when you look at MLA statements over a longer period, there is coherence to be found because the seemingly contradictory sets of narratives are, in fact, two complementary elements of a broader legitimization project. Specifically, MLA narratives construct a generic, racialized other to justify state and employer actions designed to advance capital’s interests (in low-cost, docile labour) over the interests of both Canadian and international workers.

AFL. Temporary Foreign Workers: Alberta’s Disposable Workforce. Edmonton: Alberta Federation of Labour, 2007.
AFL. Entrenching Exploitation: The Second Report of the Alberta Federation of Labour Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate. Edmonton: Alberta Federation of Labour, 2009.
Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 31 March 2004, Mark Norris PC, pp. 824-5
Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 27 April 2005a, Lyle Oberg PC, pp. 1090-1
Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 16 March 2005b, Mike Cardinal PC, p. 280
Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 22 February 2006, Normie Kwong, Lt. Governor, p. 2
Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 29 November 2010, Thomas Lukaszuk PC, p. 1640
Alberta. 2010 Annual Alberta Labour Market Review. Edmonton: Government of Alberta, 2011a.
Alberta. Alberta Immigration Progress Report 2011. Edmonton: Government of Alberta, 2011b
Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 19 April 2011c, Thomas Lkaszuk PC, pp. 725-6.
Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 23 February 2011d, Thomas Lukaszuk PC, p. 15
Alberta, Alberta Labour Force Profiles: Aboriginal People 2011. (Edmonton: Author, 2012).
Auditor General of Canada, 2009 Fall Report of the Auditor General. (Ottawa: Author, 2009).
B. Barnetson and J. Foster, “The Political Justification of Migrant Workers in Alberta, Canada”, Journal of International Migration and Immigration, 2013. DOI:
Calgary Herald, “Alberta pursues 41,000 foreign workers; 'We are being swamped with requests from employers”, Calgary Herald, April 13, 2008.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada, “Facts and Figures 2012”, Ottawa: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2013.
J. Foster, “Making Temporary Permanent: The Silent Transformation of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program”, Just Labour 19 (2012): 22–46.
J. Foster and A. Taylor, “Permanent Temporary-ness: Temporary Foreign Workers in Alberta’s Construction Trades”, Canadian Industrial Relations Association Annual Conference. Fredericton, New Brunswick, June 2011
N. Sharma, Home Economics Nationalism and the Making of ‘Migrant Workers’ in Canada. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).
L. Vosko, Managing the Margins: Gender, Citizenship, and the International Regulation of Precarious Employment. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Skills and labour shortage: Sky not falling, carry on

The TD Bank has released a new analysis of the Canadian labour market that pours some cold water on claims that a massive labour shortage is looming. For whatever reason, I can’t find the full report (I’ll keep looking—it may be embargoed), but a six-page summary is available here.

EDIT: Here is the full report.

The most interesting part of the summary is this bit from page 4:
It is the case that occupations widely thought to be in shortage have recorded considerably lower unemployment rates than their counterparts in the surplus camp. Still, vacancy rates outside some pockets (e.g., trades) are not significantly higher than the rest and have not accelerated over the past few years. And strikingly, similar wage increases are noted in sectors in loose and tight markets.  
Given the regional variations in labour market conditions, we tested occupational mismatch at the provincial level. Our findings corroborate the view that regional mismatch occurs, with vacancy rates rising more significantly in the Prairies, particularly in those occupations perceived to be in shortage. In addition, we discovered that employers in Alberta and Saskatchewan were also having difficulties filling workers in occupations widely believed to be in surplus, which points to the knock-on effects to the broad economy from strong resource development.  
The story on the wage data remains curious, as wage gains out west have not increased to the extent that one might have thought given the signs of tightness. We cite in the report a number of factors that could be at play in holding back wages, including competitiveness pressures and the preference of employers to use non-wage channels to address hard-to-fill vacancies.
Basically, there is tightness in the labour market in some occupations and some regions, but not enough to trigger significant wage increases. Further, TD questions projections that there will be a large shortage of labour in the future.

This report suggests a number of things. First, the sky is not falling regarding labour shortages or a skills gap. There may be localized or occupational tightness, but this does not imperil the economy. This is useful to know as the (economic) sky falling is often used to justify public policy change.

Second, we should be cautious about industry and industry lobby groups warnings around shortages as employers benefit from government policies that expand the labour pool (it typically cheapens labour). This is especially the case when employers are not utilizing the levers they can (e.g., improving wages and working conditions) to draw more workers into the labour force. In effect, we may be seeing relative labour shortages (no more workers willing to work for available wages and working conditions) rather than absolute shortages (no more workers no matter the compensation or conditions). 

Third, federal programming changes (e.g., raising pension age, linking EI to labour mobility, the Canada Jobs Grant) may not rest on a firm footing. Rather, they may well be sops to industry to loosen the labour market and thus reduce wage pressure.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fairness Works ads now available on youtube

The Canadian Labour Congress has recently been running ads on TV. Last week I lamented I couldn't find them and, lo, the Labour Gods have made it available on YouTube:

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, October 21, 2013

More on mandatory WCB for Alberta farm workers

One of few positive signs around the long-standing exclusion of Alberta farm workers from virtually all of statutory employment laws was a January motion at the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers (now the Alberta Federation of Agriculture) AGM that said:
Farm Labour Resolution 2013-10: Be it resolved that WRAP approach the WCB to discuss inclusion of agricultural employment under the WCB Act.
 At the time, most observers (including myself) thought that this signaled the AFA was going to explore mandatory workers’ compensation coverage for farms and ranches (which are presently excluded from mandatory coverage—although employers can purchase voluntary coverage). Apparently, this motion was passed “very narrowly”. 

This 2013 motion follows on a 2011 motion that was similar and also passed very narrowly:
Delegates to the recent Wild Rose Agricultural Producers (WRAP) annual meeting in Edmonton took on the contentious farm workers’ rights issue, and voted to lobby the Alberta government to include agricultural workers under the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). The motion passed by one vote. 
In late January, the AFA was quoted as saying WCB coverage was good news:
(President Lynn) Jacobson said WCB coverage makes sense because most farmers don't carry insurance to cover their liability if a worker gets injured. "Really, when you think about it, having some type of coverage is a win for you as a producer. You can't really lose by it. But if you don't have it, you could lose your farm."
 Yet, in February, the AFA clarified it position in an article in the Prairie Post:
“We are not pushing WCB to include agricultural workers; we are simply gathering information and exploring the options," explained Sheryl Rae, executive director, WRAP, the largest agriculture organization in Alberta.
“Gathering information and exploring options” is an interesting interpretation of the January motion. The motion could mean that, although why the AFA would need a motion from the floor of its AGM to go gather information is hard to fathom: isn’t this what industry organizations do as a matter of course?

Recently, I received a copy of an October 10 letter from the AFA to Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture. It says, in part:
AFA is often publically portrayed as having a resolution on our books that calls for mandatory WCB coverage. As we discussed with you during our meeting, a producer-initiated resolution was passed at our AGM that directed our board to “approach the WCB to discuss the inclusion of agricultural employment under the WCB Act.” In hindsight, this wording may have fallen short of its intent, which was to seek clarity around corporate liability protection and how coverage for family members, neighbors, and friends assisting with specific farm operations is handled. We have since met with the WCB Manager of Customer Services and will be taking that information forward to our membership.
This paragraph deserves some unpacking. First, note that the AGA characterizes the motion “producer-initiated”. I’m not sure if that means it was a motion from the floor or not, but this wording seems to distance the AGA’s executive from the motion. It may signal that there is still some organizational resistance to the notion of mandatory coverage, which accords with the reportedly close votes in 2011 and 2013.

Second, the AGA expands upon its February interpretation of the motion to indicate the motion directed the AGA “to seek clarity around corporate liability protection and how coverage for family members, neighbors, and friends assisting with specific farm operations is handled.” The AGA also notes that the January motion’s “wording may have fallen short of its intent.”

Now I wasn’t at the AGM, but this interpretation seems like a bit of a stretch. The motion was: “Be it resolved that WRAP approach the WCB to discuss inclusion of agricultural employment under the WCB Act.

While the motion doesn’t quite authorize the AGA to seek changes in the Workers’ Compensation Regulation (although the 2011 motion seems to), it also doesn’t suggest the AGA simply seek clarity around the scope of voluntary coverage. Rather, it directs the AGA to commence discussion about included agricultural employment (which is currently excluded) under the WCB Act. That is to say, the motion seems to direct action toward changing the status quo.

Perhaps what we’re seeking here is an internal division in the AFA on the issue of mandatory WCB. This is consistent with the 2011 and 2013 motions passing narrowly. If the organization is divided, this puts the executive of the AFA in a tough spot. On the one hand, they must take action on the motion but, on the other hand, they may risk the departure of those members who opposed the motion.

Indeed, the AFA exec may also be divided (or even opposed), which might explain why it characterizes the motion as “producer-initiated”. Walking back the motion to “gathering information and exploring options” may well be an effort to minimally comply with the motion without alienating either camp.

The upshot seems to be that the AFA remains committed to the status quo on workers’ compensation coverage (voluntary coverage only), uptake upon which the AGA characterizes as “low”. Based on WCB industry profiles, it looks like about 7% or so.

For farm workers who will be injured this year, this means they will most likely continue to be without wage-loss compensation or medical benefits. It also suggests that winning producers over on issues where they have a vested interest is difficult. This, of course, is why it is often necessary for governments to impose regulation on industries. It is also why there is so much skepticism about Alberta's seemingly endless consultations with agricultural producers around improving workplace safety: so long as employers can externalize the cost of injury onto workers and the health-care system, there is little incentive for them to operate more safely.

Interestingly, temporary foreign workers who come to Canada to work in agriculture must be provided workers’ compensation coverage. It is a bit hard to reconcile this (laudable) treatment of non-citizens with the government’s unwillingness to extend similar benefits to Canadian citizens who work in Alberta’s agricultural industry.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 18, 2013

Union advertising

I've been seeing a fair bit of advertising by the Canada Labour Congress on TV lately, trying to rehabilitate the general public's view of unions (see Fairness Works for a sense of the content). I couldn't find any videos of the ads, but I did find this one on UFCW's page:

The idea of identifying the benefits of trade unionism isn't new ("From the people who brought you the weekend...") but it is nice to see some counter-hegemonic advertising about broader utility of collective action.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Alberta's discourse around workplace injury

I've recently published an article entitled Framing and blaming: Construction of workplace injuries by legislators in Alberta, Canada.

Starting from the premise that government members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have successfully resisted pressure to increase state injury-prevention efforts, I sought to identify the narratives used by MLAs to manage political pressure for increased injury-prevention efforts via legislative analysis from 2000 to 2012.

I eventually identified three recurring narratives around workplace injury: (1) injuries are caused by ignorance and inattention, (2) workplaces are safe and getting safer, and (3) risk is inevitable and mitigation is (too) expensive. 

The consistency of the messages delivered by MLAs over time suggests an intentional effort to frame workplace injury in ways that manage political pressure for greater state efforts to prevent workplace injuries while maintaining the government’s legitimacy. The narratives used by MLAs draw on widely held beliefs about workplace injuries, including the careless worker myth and the notion that safety pays.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Migrants denied EI benefits despite paying premiums

An interesting story about migrant workers has come out of Ontario. Glendon Sanchez, of Trinidad and Tobago, has been coming to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) for 14 years.  A long-time contributor to EI (like all migrant workers), Sanchez decided to apply for parental benefits in 2009.
(Migrants have been generally ineligible for regular EI benefits (because they are not available in Canada for work when unemployed) but were eligible for special benefits such as parental leave because there was no residency requirement attached to them.)
Then a typical bureaucratic snafu ensured. The Employment Insurance was willing to accept claims dating back as far as 1990 from migrant workers who didn’t realize they were eligible but the EI Commission turned him down, saying he waited too long to apply (???). His appeal (along with appeals from 102 other migrant farm workers) will be heard in federal court today.
The workers stand to win between $3,000 and $8,000, each. But future workers are ineligible for parental benefits (due to a federal rule change) even thought these workers must continue to pay EI premiums.
 --Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Finally a good use for labour market data!

Yesterday, the province announced $142.5m to expand engineering facilities at the University of Calgary. Critics complained about this (capital) expenditure when post-secondary (operating) grants had been cut.

As far as I can tell, there is no information about who will pay for the operating costs of educating the 400 engineers that the expanded building can house, although the U of C’s president said:
“We will be looking to partner with government to have the operating funds to bring in those new students. Those conversations are happening right now.”
 Part of the justification of this expenditure is growing demand for engineering space (likely true). The other part of the justification was that Alberta needed more engineers:
“We need a lot of engineers in this province,” Premier Alison Redford said at the event on Wednesday. 
It is unclear if there is any actual demand for more engineers.

If you look at the government’s own labour market demand forecasts, they are projecting below average growth among civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers (+2.5% 2013-2017) and other engineers (+1.5% 2013-2017) (Lines C03 and C04 here). All in this represents about 2800 more engineers employed by 2017.

Existing programs might well meet this demand. Or, occupational churn (i.e., replacing retirees) may require more than 2800 new bodies. It is hard to tell. Of the 50 occupations with the highest vacancy rates, only mechanical engineers are on the list.

No engineers appear on the list of the “oldest” occupations in this 2009 report about Alberta’s Aging Labour Force and Skill Shortages (p.9), although this may reflect a data  exclusion by size of the occupation (I can’t quite tell).

There are engineers (software, civil engineers) listed as subject to short-term high demand (2012-2014) on page 23 of this March 2013 Labour Market Outlook.

Since the expansion won’t be finished until 2016 and then it will take four more years to graduate engineers (so 2020), this is not a solution to any identifiable shortage in government documents. 

Which raises the question of whether this expansion is politically motivated, perhaps rewarding the university that absorbed budget cuts with the least fuss.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Migrant workers bump Canadians in McMurray?

Back when the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program was ramping up, elected officials were quick to assure voters that TFWs posed no threat to Canadian jobs. Here are a few 2005 quotes from Tory cabinet Ministers recorded in Hansard to this effect:
Dr. Oberg: Lastly, the whole idea behind a temporary foreign worker is… to take these workers, bring them over here for a temporary period of time when they are needed, when there is the workforce boom that is going on, when we can’t supply it, and then at the end of three years they have to go home. Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 27 April 2005a, Lyle Oberg PC, pp. 1090-1

Mr. Cardinal: … The first priority for Alberta, our government… is to hire Albertans first wherever possible, Canadians second…. When an employer has exhausted that, then they have an opportunity to apply through the federal government to bring in foreign workers…. It’s definitely not a top priority for industries, definitely not a top priority for our government… who like to see our own local people working first. Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 16 March 2005b, Mike Cardinal PC, p. 280

There are dozens of similar comments where MLAs justify an increasingly migrant workforce. Yet there are also hints that these kinds of statements aren't true, especially during the economic downturn of 2008/09 when employers kept on TFWs and laid off domestic workers. There is also evidence that the federal system of evaluating employer claims about the need for TFWs was a bit thin on the "evaluate" part of "evaluating" (lots of "ing", though!).

Along the way, the feds loosened the rules. Requests for permits would proceed faster, they said (because that improves the quality of evaluation...) and several occupations required no evaluation (generally construction). Not surprisingly, with no real need to prove a labour shortage exists, some employers have decided to hire TFWs regardless of whether Canadians are available.

For example, Fort McMurray Today is reporting 270 Canadian pipefitters and welders and Husky's Sunrise project got laid off in September and have been replaced with TFWs from Portugal, Ireland, Mexico and Italy. Of course, none of the players is talking about why this happened--there are rumours of a paydispute between companies and talk that TFWs are cheaper than unionized Canadians. All of this seems contrary to the purpose of the TFW program--to address short-term labour shortages.

One of the more troubling aspects of this displacement centres on accusations that TFWs are working unsafely:
Fougere also witnessed several foreign workers operate equipment unsafely or wander into restricted areas without protective gear. Fougere says many did not understand the Alberta labour code or basic warning labels on hazardous materials. 
When he brought his concerns about the qualifications of the temporary foreign workers to Husky, Fougere says they fell on deaf ears. 
“Just to get through the door, we need certificates and licences up the ying-yang like Red Seal certification. It let’s them know that as Canadians, we’re all qualified to the standards,” he says. “These guys coming in, how the hell can they get in without our qualifications? Or how do we know how good their qualifications from other countries are?”
It is useful to keep in mind that these kinds of accusations can reflect a variety of different agendas and, indeed, there are many ways to approach the issue of TFWs.

On that note, Jason Foster and I will be presenting a paper on how Alberta MLAs "construct" migrant work and migrant workers on October 25th at the Metropolis conference Transforming Citizenship: Ethnicity, Transnationalism, and Belonging in Canada (held at the Faculte St Jean campus of the U of Alberta). 

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, October 7, 2013

Expanding workers' compensation coverage

Unions representing workers across the country recent released a statement demanding that workers’ compensation coverage be expanded to include all workers in Canada. The Yukon recently expanded workers’ compensation to all workers.

Elsewhere, many workers are excluded (although the exclusions are idiosyncratic by province and territory) from coverage and thus have no (or limited) wage-loss, rehab and medical benefits when they are injured on the job. This transfers injury costs away from employers and onto workers, their families and the taxpayer.

In Alberta, the list of exclusions is wild and varied (see Schedule B here), including farmers, preachers, hookers and some teachers. 

Which kind of reminds me of the beginning of a Randy Travis song about an MVA.

Perhaps this song inspired Alberta's incoherent list of exclusions? That is as plausible as any other explanation I've heard.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 4, 2013

Social media as a strike tool

UFCW has been using social media for awhile in its labour disputes (e.g., posting pictures of scabs and customers crossing picket lines). With a strike looming at Superstore this weekend, UFCW has posted a video on Youtube highlighting the effect that reduced hours are having on Superstore cleanliness. It is well worth a watch.

This video does a nice job of linking worker interests with those of customers and is designed to increase the effectiveness of the UFCW picket line. Even if you hate unions, would you buy food from  a mouse-infested store?

While I'm no expert on social media (I don't even have a cell phone!), my sense is that this kind of public campaign is an inexpensive and easy tactic to enhance union bargaining power with an employer. They also give union members a way to directly contribute to union job actions--perhaps acting without the knowledge or outside of the control of the union.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Edmonton posties' success with direct action against forced overtime

An interesting master’s thesis came through my inbox this morning. In Intensified Work, Intensified Struggle: Solidarity Unionism and the Edmonton Postal Workers’ Fight Against Forced Overtime, McMaster MA student Scott Thorn provides an accounting of the 2011 Canada Post labour disruption in Edmonton.

An interesting aspect of Thorn’s analysis is his focus on the workers’ direct-action campaign against work intensification (i.e., forced overtime). Rather than getting caught in the “work now, grieve later” dynamic of the formal labour relations framework, workers directly addressed concerns with their supervisors. Direct action has an immediacy effect: an issue is addressed before it becomes entrenched practice and front-line supervisors (who must carry out management edicts) are confronted with intense social pressure and workplace disruption in the form of browned off workers putting down their tools.

Chapter three details some of the effects of forced overtime on the posties. Chapter 4 (beginning at page 80) describes the frustrations of the workers with the traditional approach to grievances (including how their union dealt with their concerns). Chapter 5 sets out some of the shop-floor activities the workers engaged in to successfully limit forced overtime, including the effect of dual-card members using solidarity unionism as preached by the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies).

This kind of direct action has a lot of appeal to rank-and-file trade unionists frustrated by the formal grievance process. In my own unit, the threat of unpleasantness (via boycotts and perhaps more direct public actions) at an employee appreciation day (caused by the threat of yet another round of layoffs) led to the employer “postponing” the event. While hardly a victory for the ages, it does speak to discomfort managers face when confront with, well, confrontation. This, in turn, reflects the knowledge (however tacit) that groups can only be governed with their cooperation and pushing groups too far often ends at the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) guillotine.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Wildcat strike article

The latest edition of AUPE's house magazine Direct Impact is out. Inside is a detailed chronology of the wild cat corrections worker strike from this spring (apologies of the lack of a direct link--click on the Fall 2013 issue). While obviously pro labour, the article presents a compelling and reasonably balanced account of the strike and its aftermath.

-- Bob Barnetson