Friday, February 26, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: $100 barrel

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is Jody Hickey’s “$100 Barrel.” Hickey is a Cape Breton singer-songwriter who spent 15 years working in Alberta’s oil patch, until the latest bust sent him home. As I mentioned Tuesday, Cape Breton’s economy is highly dependent upon migrant workers whose jobs, despite the high pay, are extremely precarious:
"You work all your life to become a tradesman or another worker out in the field there, and it's just so fragile. Your job, your entire existence is based on the price of oil,"

"You know, you're living in a $500,000 home, you've got two $75,000 trucks and two sleds and two quads and you can't live like that very long with the price of oil down," said Hickey on the inspiration for the song.
The moody song also touches on the impact of migrant work on workers’ home lives:
“It’s time away from family — I’ve missed some of my close friends’ funerals and that’s something you need, to get closure.” 
“I had a nine-year relationship that fell apart because of the traveling. When we were working those 14 and seven shifts out West we were basically in Alberta nine months of a year — that's a huge chunk of your life.”

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Economic impact of FIFO and farm worker safety

Last week two interesting things came across my desk late last week. The first is a blog post by Doug Lionais from Cape Breton University. In it, he makes some preliminary observations about the degree of economic impact that migrant work (mostly Fly-In Fly-Out workers who travel to Alberta) has on Cape Breton and the impact that the downturn in the oil industry will have on Cape Breton.

This posting provides a useful perspective on the impact of inter-provincial migration on sending regions—a perspective often ignored in Alberta.

The other item was a call for participants in the next phase of consultations on Alberta’s regulation of farm work. The government appears to be specifically seeking out participants to staff six working groups and I’m told workers and worker advocates with relevant experience are being sought. The deadline for nominations is February 26 and you can self-nominate.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 19, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Atlantic Blue

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is Ron Hynes’s “Atlantic Blue”. This song was written about the sinking of the drilling rig Ocean Ranger on February 15, 1982 just over 250km east of St John’s. All 84 crew on board died.

The loss of the Ocean Ranger started with storm damage caused by a severe hurricane. As the rig flooded and eventually sank, most of the crew evacuated (either in a life boat or by jumping into the sea—the exact reason there were men loose in the sea is unclear) and then perished. A Royal Commission found:
that the crew were not trained, the safety equipment was inadequate, there were no safety protocols for the supply ship, and that the rig itself had a number of flaws. The Royal Commission concluded that Ocean Ranger had design and construction flaws, particularly in the ballast control room, and that the crew lacked proper safety training, survival suits and equipment. The Royal Commission also concluded that inspection and regulation by United States and Canadian government agencies was ineffective.
I apologize for the lack of a video. The one performace video I could find had terrible audio.

What colour is a heartache from a love lost at sea?
What shade of memory never fades but lingers to eternity?
And how dark is the light of day that sleepless eyes of mine survey?
Is that you, Atlantic Blue? My heart is as cold as you.

How is one heart chosen to never lie at peace?
How many moments remain? Is there not one sweet release?
And who’s the stranger at my door, to haunt my dreams forever more?
Is that you, Atlantic Blue? My heart is as cold as you.

I lie awake in the morning, as waves wash on the sand,
I hold my hurt at bay, I hold the lives of his children in my hands.
And whose plea will receive no answer? Whose cry is lost upon the wind?
Who’s the voice so familiar, whispers my name as the night comes in?
And whose wish never fails to find my vacant heart on Valentine’s?
Is that you Atlantic Blue? My heart is as cold,
My heart is as cold, my heart is as cold as you.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Migrant farmworkers and modern slavery

I sometimes hear from workers seeking help. Over the Christmas break, I chatted with a temporary foreign worker employed on a mushroom farm in Alberta. 

The story he related was essentially one of modern slavery, including 16- to 18-hour days six days per week, endemic injury, wage theft, and insanely substandard housing. A quick bit of googling suggests this is not the first time this farm has been in the news around TFWs.

The worker’s solution was to leave the country (he was too injured to work anymore anyhow). All of the complaint processes available to him took too long and required too much English for him to successfully access them. I was thinking of him when I read this recent article entitled “Breaking the silence: The sexual harassment of Mexican women farmworkers.”

The gist of the article is that female migrant farm workers frequently experienced both quid pro quo and hostile work environment forms of sexual harassment and this harassment resulted in both employment and health consequences.

This research was done in Washington State. Canadians often feel superior to Americans around our treatment of farm workers, but (as my holiday chat with one of our TFWs suggests) we have little reason to feel this way.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 12, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: New York Mining Disaster 1941

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is the BeeGee’s “New York Mining Disaster 1941”. This song seemed appropriate in light of this week’s OHS report on the 2007 death of two Chinese workers near Fort McMurray

The song was inspired by the 1966 Aberfan disaster, when 40,000 cubic meters of mining slag slid down a hill and buried a Welsh village and school more than 10 metres deep. Despite rescue work by miners, 144 people died, including five teachers and 116 children between the ages of 7 and 10.

The song records the last moments of two miners, trapped after a cave in. The original recording has some interesting musical features. The lyrics slow as the song goes on, evoking a sense of dying. There is a violin response in the second chorus to the miner straining his ears to hear a sound. And the drums get louder in the second verse as the miners fear their talking will cause a landslide.

In the event of something happening to me
there is something I would like you all to see
It's just a photograph of someone that I knew

Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?
Do you know what it's like on the outside?
Don't go talking too loud, you'll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones

I keep straining my ears to hear a sound
Maybe someone is digging underground
or have they given up and all gone home to bed
thinking those who once existed must be dead

Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?
Do you know what it's like on the outside?
Don't go talking too loud, you'll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones

In the event of something happening to me
there is something I would like you all to see
It's just a photograph of someone that I knew

Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?
Do you know what it's like on the outside?
Don't go talking too loud, you'll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Questions remain about the CNRL tank collapse

Yesterday, CBC revealed that CNRL has successfully limited the scope of a public fatality inquiry about the 2007 deaths of two temporary foreign workers caused by a tank collapse to whether the availability of an air ambulance would have saved one of the workers.

Circumscribing the scope of the fatality inquiry renders it largely useless; a fuller inquiry would perhaps reveal important information that might be used to prevent future deaths. CNRL limited the scope of the inquiry during a teleconference involving CNRL, Alberta Justice, and a provincial court judge.

There are many profoundly troubling aspects to this report. Here are five:

1. Why would CNRL oppose a full inquiry? There is no real cost to CNRL and the result may prevent future deaths. The only risk I can see is if there is the prospect of reputation harm (e.g., the inquiry might reveal dodgy corporate practices). Surely the public good favours transparency?

2. Why did OHS hide its investigation report for 8 years? Perhaps the report could legitimately be withheld during the prosecution of SSEC Canada, but that is completed two years ago. Who decided not to post the report and why? Again, surely he public good favours transparency and the state should proactively disclose fatality reports. EDIT: I just read that the government normally withholds reports until after the fatality inquiry was over. Again, why?

3. Why did the judge limit the scope of the inquiry? The workers affected here were profoundly vulnerable. The 132 temporary foreign workers on the project were entirely dependent upon their employer for their right to work in Canada and were physically and linguistically isolated. They were also dependent upon their employer for their safety (given the complexity of the undertaking). Not only did their employer fail to take responsible steps to protect their lives and health, but the resulting investigation also revealed widespread wage theft by the employer.

The inquiry could have delved into how these intersecting forms of vulnerability are exploited by employers to maximize profitability, in part through complex corporate and subcontracting arrangements. I wonder if these deaths would have happened and if the inquiry would have been circumscribed if the workers had been Canadian, instead of Chinese?

4. Why does everyone blame the workers? The CBC report notes that:
The OHS report found that the employee responsible for monitoring activity inside the tank "was not competent." The worker "was not aware of the emergency response requirements" and "did not have a telephone or radio to summon assistance."
This phrasing has the effect of blaming the “not competent” worker. It is important to note that it is the employer who was responsible for ensuring the work was safe and, by implication, that the staff they hired were suitably qualified for the tasks they were directed to perform.

5. Did CNRL actually just blame the AFL for the limited scope of the inquiry? CNRL’s cousel, in the CBC article, blames the Alberta Federation of Labour for the outcome of the January hearing:
[AFL President Gil] McGowan said he supports a full inquiry, but CNRL's lawyer blames the labour organization for failing to act when it had the opportunity. Two letters addressed to McGowan invited the AFL to participate in the January hearing. Lawyers for the Alberta government sent the first in September, and the second one day before the teleconference. They received no reply.

[CNRL lawyer David] Myrol took the lack of response as tacit approval of quashing the inquiry. "I would submit sir, that the party that really pre-empted this entire public inquiry is the federation themselves," Myrol told Jacques, the judge. "They've been notified of this public fatality inquiry and have chosen not to participate in it."
Setting aside that Alberta Justice directed notices to McGowan (who was on leave from the AFL) rather than the organization, is it CNRL’s position that public inquiries should only occur when organized labour demands it? CNRL attempting to blame the AFL for an outcome actively pursued by CNRL is shameful and specious reasoning.

Overall, the case is a fascinating study of how federal immigration and provincial health and safety laws interact in petro-state.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Interactive safety statistic data

Jason Foster and I have been looking at media representations of occupational injury. Coverage tends to be episodic and framed such that injuries and fatalities are viewed as “freak accidents” for which no one is responsible and about which nothing can be done.

An interesting project I heard about this week out of the US dynamically and visually tracks fatalities in the construction industry. This presentation of injury data allows instructors, operators and apprentices to see and read about fatalities in their own city or region.

It also visually demonstrates that fatalities are not rare or isolated events, but are part of a pattern, with startlingly high numbers. This particular project combines several data sources to generate its map. The screen cap on the top right doesn't really convey how dynamic the map is (it allows zooming, each pin can be clicked for detailed information and there are maps for each year).

This kind of approach might be a way for governments to better present information around injuries and get around the filtering and framing that occurs when relying upon media reports to convey injury information.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 5, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Money's Too Tight to Mention

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is Simply Red’s “Money’s Too Tight to Mention”. This song was a hit in about 1985 (I think) during the height of Reaganonmics with its ridiculous trickle-down theory. I was thinking about the song the other day when reading about various debunked economic theories that just won’t die.

The Phillips Curve is one such notion. It basically asserts that there is an inverse relationship between unemployment and wages and, thus, prices (i.e., inflation): when unemployment goes up, wages and prices come down and vice versa. This (now debunked) theory suggests that governments can shape (and limit) inflation by controlling unemployment.

Newspaper reporters often use (however unconsciously) this theory when reporting upon unionized wage settlements. In effect, they link wage increases to inflation (even though there is a large body of literature suggesting price increases drive wage increases) and, subsequently, job losses. The result of this frame is that unions are seen in a negative light.

I been laid off from work
My rent is due
My kids all need
Brand new shoes

So I went to the bank
To see what they could do
They said son - looks like bad luck
Got-a hold on you

Money's too tight to mention
I can't get an un-em-ploy-ment ex-ten-sion
Money's too tight to mention

I went to my brother
To see what he could do -
He said bro-ther like to help you
But I'm unable to

So I called on my fa-ther fa-ther
Oh my fa-ther
He said

I can't even qual-i-fy for my pension

We talk a-bout rea-gan-on-ics
Oh lord down in the con-gress
They're passing all kinds - of bills
From down cap-it-ol hill - (we've tried them)


Money's too tight to mention
[spoken] cut-back!
Mo-ney mo-ney mo-ney mon-ey
We're talk-in' a-bout mon-ey mon-ey
We're talk-in' a-bout mon-ey mon-ey
We're talk-in' 'bout the dollar bill
Now what are we all to do
When the mon-ey's got a hold on you?

Mo-ney's too tight to mention
Oh mon-ey mon-ey mon-ey mon-ey
Mo-ney's too tight to mention
A-mero - mon-ey oh yeah

We're talk-in' a-bout mon-ey mon-ey
We're talk-in' a-bout mon-ey mon-ey
We're talk-in' a-bout mon-ey mon-ey
We're talk-in' a-bout mon-ey 

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sexual harassment in emergency services

Sexual harassment remains an endemic issue. Recently there have been a spate of stories about sexual harassment of female firefighters. About 600 of Canada’s 22,000 firefighters are women. You can see an interesting documentary from the fifth estate below.

This month, half of the volunteer fire department in Spaniards Bay, NL resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. The town’s lone female firefighter (who also happens to be the most qualified firefighter...) alleged that a long-term pattern of sexual harassment. For example, an instructor concluded a fire training session by showing hard-core pornography.

As is often the case in sexual harassment, the alleged perpetrators have closed ranks and the victim has been subjected to abuse, both in the workplace and in the community. This includes an attempt to remove the victim from her seat on the town council. The town eventually apologized and is now rebuilding its fire department by seeking new volunteers.

The most preceptive commentary on the issue is from
Spaniard's Bay is a small, close-knit community. It is not surprising that many people resent Brenda Seymour for disrupting its idyllic atmosphere by alleging that many of its firefighters are complicit in sexual harassment. Volunteer firefighting is a genuinely noble calling and no one wants to believe that the people they love could do anything heinous. 
This might explain why an act of courage—a lone woman speaking out against powerful figures in a small town—appears to others in the community as a deceitful act of cowardice. She must be a liar or a "conniving witch," because these "fine young men with nice families" would never do anything wrong. No one wants to believe that the people they love can do bad things, however unwittingly. This is the mechanism by which sexism is reproduced. 
There are two sides to every story. So which side is more plausible? 
That a bossy shrew is conspiring to single-handedly bring down the Spaniard's Bay fire department and its beloved chief out of spite? Or, that an ambitious, assertive woman ran afoul of a well-documented culture of pervasive and casual sexism in a fire department that operated more like a frat house? 
"Please do not post any more statuses, opinions, etc," [Kate] Davis [daughter of assistant firechief Randy Davis] posted to the Facebook support group after the rally. "Our men have this under control now!" 
Yes, they do. And in Spaniard's Bay, they always have.
-- Bob Barnetson