Friday, November 17, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Supply and Demand

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Supply and Demand” by Amos Lee. The song is about the tendency of people to construct their lives around their occupations and the impact this has on them. For example, a study out of Ohio found women working more than 60 hours per week had triple the risk of life threatening illnesses.

The message of the song is that:
Somethin' gotta give with the way I'm livin'
Seems I'm gettin' down everyday
The more I strive, the less I'm alive
And seems I'm gettin' further away

Yeah baby I need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand
The sentiment here is fine and all, but I wonder if the notion that self-reflection is a cure-all for over work is a bit facile. Certainly becoming aware that we’re working too much and might better spend our time doing other things is nice.

But there are lots of concrete reasons people work more that they’d like, such as declining real-dollar wages, a lack of permanent jobs, and growing economic insecurity. Pop culture—which is embedded in a capitalist economy—rarely problematizes the structural outcomes of capitalism.

Instead, it tends to individualize responsibility. Like this song suggesting workers need to change their behaviour. I’m sure the warehouse guy in this video would like to work less:
Well your wife and your baby you tell them yeah well maybe
I'll meet y'all at a weekend resort
Put your eyes on the prize and you can realize
Your little girl's life's so short
But can he? And what kind of profound political and economic change would be required for a manual labourer to earn a living wage?

There doesn’t appear to be an official video for this song so I found this fan-made video. Note the lip-syncer is not Amos Lee.



Somethin' gotta give with the way I'm livin'
Seems I'm gettin' down everyday
The more I strive, the less I'm alive
And seems i'm gettin' further away

Oh well all my superstitions and my crazy suspicions
Of the people that I care about
I been doin' more screamin' than I been doin' dreamin'
And I think it's time I figured it out

Yeah baby I need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand

I been goin' joggin' in the park after dark
Draggin' 'round with me my ball and chain
Took southern skies to make me realize
That I'm causin' myself this pain

The woman that I'm lovin' yeah I'm pushin' and shovin'
Getting further on by the day
And I can't understand how the heart of this man
Ever let it end up this way

Yeah baby I need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand

When the road gets dark and lonesome dear
You can find me here
But honey you don't know where I am
You need a friieend yeeaahh

Life ain't easy in fact I know it's sleazy
When you're the big man in town
Shakin' religions and makin' decisions
You never get slow on down

Well your wife and your baby you tell them yeah well maybe
I'll meet y'all at a weekend resort
Put your eyes on the prize and you can realize
Your little girl's life's so short

Brother you need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand
Yeah sister you need a plan to understand
That life ain't only supply and demand

Hey, you better figure it out now
You know you ain't comin' back down, yeah
You better figure it out now
You know you ain't comin' back down

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

BC report highlights rampant wage theft, broken system

The BC Employment Standards Coalition released a report this summer entitled “Workers stories of exploitation and abuse: Why BC Employment Standards needs to change.” BC’s laws governing the terms and conditions of use had been significantly degraded through legislative and regulatory change by the former Liberal government.

The report tells the stories of 145 BC workers whose employers violated their rights or made their lives difficult because BC workers lack certain rights. The most common issues flagged included wage theft (e.g., improper pay, no OT, improper termination, illegal deductions), abusive and unhealthy workplaces (e.g., discrimination, harassment), and scheduling violations (e.g., no breaks, long hours, reduced hours, compulsory OT, scheduling changes).

The stories of wage theft are the ones that will resonate the most with readers. While some stories are of straight up non-payment, it is subtler forms of time and wage-premium theft that the most common:
Brad is a delivery drive and glass installer for a national auto glass company. He stated that because of a significant workload increase, he and his co-workers must start work 20 to 30 minutes early every day without pay. They also have to forego coffee and lunch breaks in order to complete their daily assignments.

John worked in a professional office and was not being paid for overtime. He was given more work than could be handled during normal hours and was expected to stay late to finish it. He was given a company cell phone and expected to be available 24/7. While on vacation, John completed eight hours of unpaid work using a laptop computer that he was asked by his employer to take with him.

Megan is a software developer for an engineering company. When she works overtime, she only gets paid her regular rate of pay. Alternately, she can choose to bank overtime for days off, hour for hour. Megan’s employer also requires her to be available for work at all times, but she is not paid for being on-call. She has reported for work within four hours of a call but only been paid two hours for the call-in. She does not receive overtime pay while working on-call during a weekend. Megan raised the issue of on-call and overtime pay with her employer, but was told there is no overtime pay for extra hours or for on-call extra hours.

Mel is a delivery driver for a retail and wholesale meat company. He reported that all of the employees at his company are “treated like shit” and expected to work for free after the 4 p.m. quitting time. Mel refuses to work overtime for free, but his co-workers regularly stay late without compensation (some of them work from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. without overtime pay).

Mel is familiar with the ESB website but decided the process of filing a complaint was “not worth it,” and that he would not want to sit down with his employer to discuss his complaint. Mel thinks the process should change. (p. 26)
BC’s rules around child labour have been even worse than Alberta’s and the result has been serious injury to young workers:
Justin was 12 when he started a job at an auto salvage company. On his first day, he was stacking car batteries and battery acid spilled on him, soaking through his clothes and burning his chest. He received no medical treatment on the worksite and was told to keep working. He still has scars on his chest from the acid burns.

Cara has permanent disabilities in her back and wrists from working with animals when she was 13. Cara’s employer blamed her for incurring injuries and promptly fired her. When Cara’s mother complained, the employer paid Cara some compensation for the injuries. However, Cara was not rehired and the employer never filed an injury report. Four years later, Cara still has debilitating pain and avoids using one of her hands.

Cory was 13 when he started working. He was hired to work construction cleanup at ap- proximately 35 hours per week. Though the law requires an employer to obtain a letter of permission from a parent before hiring someone under the age of 15, Cory’s parents weren’t asked for such a letter. Corey was promised a video game as payment, which he never received. On one occasion, he fell through scaffolding and landed one story below. Corey’s boss offered him a beer. He was in pain for about a week, and no WorkSafeBC accident report was filed. (p. 32)
The stories of temporary foreign workers employed on farms and as domestics are also worth a read. Finally, the report touches on how worker-hostile the employment standards claim process is in BC:
Bianca was a manager in the kitchen operated by Compass Canada at Hudson’s Bay. Her employer was not paying her for all the hours she worked, nor were they paying her over- time pay. She raised the issue many times with her employer but was told not to worry and that she would be looked after. Bianca finally quit and filed a complaint with ESB. She was required to participate by phone in a mediation with her employer and an ESB officer. Bianca’s employer kept giving “low ball” offers to try to get her to settle. When she did not accept any of the offers, the officer told her she should settle and stop wasting everyone’s time. Bianca refused to settle and a hearing was scheduled.

The employer did not show up for the first hearing date. At the second hearing, the employer did not bring the paperwork they had been asked to bring. During the proceedings, the officer treated Bianca with disrespect. He often turned his back on her, and referred to her, when speaking with the employer, as “she” and “her,” but never by name. The officer got into arguments with the complainant. She was finally pressured into settling for less than what was owed to her. It took months to reach this settlement. “After the hearing I went outside and cried,” said Bianca. “I was so intimidated and furious and disappointed with how I was treated.”

“I would tell people not to bother filing an employment standards complaint unless they have a lawyer,” said Bianca, when asked for advice to give other workers. “They will just end up frustrated and even more angry. The system is not made for solving violations. The self-help kit is designed to intimidate people and it is difficult to understand.” (p. 51).
It is worth noting that “Since 2000/2001, the number of branch offices has been reduced from 17 to 9 (a 47 per cent reduction), and the total number of branch staff has been reduced from148 to 74 (a 50 per cent reduction). At the same time, total employment in BC has increased by 23 per cent, and the number of establishments with employees has increased by 25 per cent.” (p. 53)

Overall, the report suggests three things: (1) BC’s Employment Standards are inadequate, (2) what standards there are routinely violated by employers to minimize labour costs, and (3) BC does a very poor job of enforcing the standards. An open question is whether BC’s recently elected New Democratic government will do anything meaningful about it.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 10, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Midnight regulations

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Midnight Regulations” by Alexisonfire. This song appears to be about the pressure—both economic and moral--that workers find themselves in at work:
Burned his candle down
Working to make ends meet
And
They say just to hold onto your hope
But you know if you swallow your pride
You will choke
Now I may be missing something here around the use of midnight regulations. My understanding of midnight regulations is at they are rules enacted by US agencies by an outgoing president in order to box in his/her successor. I don’t quite see the link, but perhaps this is a nod to ability of the powerful to manipulate the future of workers with no accountability for the consequences?
And now he's hanging on
To his final stitch of faith
So, here's to all the years
Of deaf ear fallen prayers
Rich men behind closed doors
Are trying to keep him in his place
The most melodious version of this song is here. The only video I could find is this live, sharper-edged interpretation from (I think) the band’s final tour.



I find myself concerned
For the common man, these days
Evil are the minds
That push the divide
Forced to live a life
In fear that his future is on the wane
Midnight regulations
Midnight regulations

Burned his candle down
Working to make ends meet
But what can be done
About the way things have become
Fingers to the bone
Ready to admit defeat
Midnight regulations
Midnight

Brother! There is no charity
For the common man
When he is in need of relief

And now he's hanging on
To his final stitch of faith
So, here's to all the years
Of deaf ear fallen prayers
Rich men behind closed doors
Are trying to keep him in his place
Midnight regulations
Midnight regulations

Oh, all you common men
You need to fight for a new way
Old hearts, we need to mend
It's time to start again
Palace walls dismantled
Brick by brick, you will have your day
Midnight regulations
Midnight

Brother! There is no charity
For the common man
When he is in need of relief

They say just to hold onto your hope
But you know if you swallow your pride
You will choke

Brother! There is no charity (there is no charity)
For the common man
When he is in need of relief (when he is in need)
Brother!
Brother!
Men!
Men!
Midnight Regulations
Midnight,
Midnight regulations

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bill 19 a missed opportunity on violence prevention

Last week, Alberta introduced and passed (!) Bill 19, An Act to Protect Gas and Convenience Store Workers. This legislation requires customers to pay before pumping in an effort to prevent gas-and-dash injuries as well as increases employers’ obligations around staff safety. Unfortunately, Bill 19 was only a half-measure that leaves workers vulnerable to other, more common forms of workplace violence.

The pay-before-you-pump requirement is long overdue. BC enacted Grant’s Law in 2005 and, in doing so, eliminated gas-and-dash deaths. Interestingly, last autumn’s consultation on this legislation revealed that 77% of filling stations already had this technology in place. In this way, pay-before-you-pump is another instance of the law catching up with practice. And this practice benefits employers by reducing theft. That said, this is laudable move by Alberta’s New Democratic government.

The majority of Bill 19, however, is focused on setting out requirements around violence prevention in convenience stores and gas stations. Stats on violence-related injuries are hard to find (and, notably, aren’t a part of the background info on Bill 19). Last autumn’s consultation suggested there were 83 employee assaults resulting in lost-time claims from 2011 to 2015. And, more broadly, there were about 750 victims of crime in this sector (victims include workers and bystanders) in 2012. One implication is that in-store violence is a much numerically larger issue than gas-and-dash.

BC’s legislation requires employers to choose among three options if they employ retail workers between 11 pm and 6 am:
  1. Assign two employees to the job.
  2. Install a physical barrier between the worker and the public.
  3. Implement a violence protection program (e.g., time locked safe, good visibility, video surveillance, emergency transmitter).
Most employers have opted for option 3 because it is the cheapest and least disruptive option. Option 3 has been the norm for bigger retailers at least as far back as 1989, when I was an overnight gas jockey. Alberta’s legislation requires employers to only comply with option 3—basically legally mandating the best practices common 30 years ago.

The weakness of this approach is that it is basically a robbery-prevention program, rather than a violence-prevention program. Certainly, robbery prevention programs will have some spill over effect on violence (as some violence occurs during robberies). What stats are available on violence in convenience stores (and they are poor) from the US suggests that only 20% of homicides have a robbery connection.

We also know that robbery-prevention programs don’t necessarily prevent violence. For example, the existence of a robbery-prevention program did not prevent the deaths of two Edmonton Mac’s employees in 2015, who were killed after being robbed for what little cash was in the till. Barriers might well have prevented these deaths.

At last year’s consultation, employers resisted the requirement to install barriers because of the expected cost and operational impact (e.g., it interferes with workers perform other duties like cleaning and stocking). Indeed, the convenience-store lobby led the charge in BC to weaken Grant’s Law in 2012 and allow the substitution of a robbery-prevention program in lieu of barriers or two staff members.

Alberta’s decision to adopt the weakest of BC’s three options leaves convenience-store and gas-station workers at significant risk of workplace violence. These changes appear consistent with the Notley’s government’s “getting to average” pattern on labour legislation, wherein the limits of employment law changes appear to be the rules that are already widely adopted elsewhere (apparently, even if they don’t really work).

Since most major gas and convenience-store chains already comply with these rules, there is going to be little employer push back on the changes. Indeed, there is going to be praise. For example:
“Pre-payment eliminates the risks associated with fuel payments, and we applaud the government for taking this important step to protect attendants and the public. We believe this is the right thing to do – and so do the people working at our stations.”
Lawrence Richler, vice-president, Canadian Products Marketing, Husky Energy Inc.

“A safe store environment is paramount to 7-Eleven Canada and we believe pre-payment of fuel purchases will improve employee and public safety in Alberta. For many years, 7-Eleven Canada has run an employee safety program similar to the safety plan announced today. It stems from our commitment to our employees and the communities we serve.”
Doug Rosencrans, vice-president and general manager, 7-Eleven Canada
Yet praise from industry (which has been spared significant costs) does not necessarily mean that the government got the balance right. Under Bill 19, vulnerable workers remain vulnerable to workplace violence. Overall, this is missed opportunity to put worker safety before employer profitability. Even the usually supportive Alberta Federation of Labour issued a press release noting this gap in the NDs' bill.

I suspect the NDs know Bill 19 is a half measure (or they got really bad policy advice). And that is why they are pushing the gas-and-dash narrative (which is a clear win for workers and an easy sell) while downplaying (and, frankly, misrepresenting) the so-called violence-prevention measures.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 3, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Links on the Chain

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Links on the chain” by Phil Ochs. This song was originally released in 1965 and is a rebuke to trade unionists who failed to support the civil rights movements.

The song starts by noting that organized labour (which was a powerful force in the 1960s) had to fight for recognition against the forces of the state and employers. Yet, once accepted (more or less), powerful actors declined to support the civil rights movement.
Oh, the black man was a rising fast, racing from the shade
And your union took no stand and your union was betrayed
Ochs points out that civil rights activists used many of the same tactics as early labour activists to seek accommodation of their interests. Yet unionists did not act in solidarity, in part because they feared (or were told to fear) for the expansion of the labour pool that equality might bring.
And the man who tries to tell you that they'll take your job away
He's the same man who was scabbing hard just the other day
And your union's not a union till he's thrown out of the way
This is a very critical song (Ochs opens the song by condemning homophobia… in 1965!) that holds lessons for today’s trade unionists about the importance of solidarity across traditional divisions.



Come you ranks of labor, come you union core
And see if you remember the struggles of before
When you were standing helpless on the outside of the door
And you started building links
On the chain, on the chain
And you started building links
On the chain

When the police on the horses were waiting on demand
Riding through the strike with the pistols in their hands
Swinging at the skulls of many a union man
As you built one more link
On the chain, on the chain
As you built one more link
On the chain

Then the army of the fascists tried to put you on the run
But the army of the union, they did what could be done
Oh, the power of the factory was greater than the gun
As you built one more link
On the chain, on the chain
As you built one more link
On the chain

And then in 1954, decisions finally made
Oh, the black man was a rising fast, racing from the shade
And your union took no stand and your union was betrayed
As you lost yourself a link
On the chain, on the chain
As you lost yourself a link
On the chain

And then there came the boycotts and then the freedom rides
And forgetting what you stood for, you tried to block the tide
Oh, the automation bosses were laughing on the side
As they watched you lose your link
On the chain, on the chain
As they watched you lose your link
On the chain

You know when they block your trucks boys by laying on the road
All that they are doing is all that you have showed
That you gotta strike, you gotta fight to get what you are owed
When you're building all your links
On the chain, on the chain
When you're building all your links
On the chain

And the man who tries to tell you that they'll take your job away
He's the same man who was scabbing hard just the other day
And your union's not a union till he's thrown out of the way
And he's choking on your links
Of the chain, of the chai
And he's choking on your links
Of the chain

For now the times are telling you the times are rolling on
And you're fighting for the same thing, the jobs that will be gone
Now it's only fair to ask your boys, which side are you on?
As you're building all your links
On the chain, on the chain
As you're building all your links
On the chain

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Alberta Labour 2016/17 Annual Report


Alberta Labour released its 2016/17 annual report earlier this year. Here are some highlights that touch on safe, fair and healthy workplaces

Labour Relations
Both Labour Board hearings and certification applications have dropped by 20% or more over the past two years. It will be interesting to see if card-check certification results in a reversal of this trend in organizing.

Despite this decline, wait times for hearings are rising, averaging 66 days (the target is 70). Decision times are also lagging, with only 63% of decisions being rendered in 90 days or less (target is 85%). This is explained as reflecting (in part) the temporary unavailability of adjudicators.

Employment Standards
Complaint numbers held steady this year but there was a significant increase in the number of files closed (addressing a backlog). While the government recovered $4.61 million in unpaid wages, it is unclear what percentage of owed wages this comprises.



Only 49% of ES complaints were completed within 180 days of receipt. The target is 65% and ES has failed to meet the target in each of the last 5 years. This may reflect staffing levels, as there are only 45 ES inspectors and 8 other staff in Alberta, which has a non-union workforce of about 1.8 million.



Over 670 inspections were conducted this year (focusing on youth and temporary foreign workers). This is up significantly from the 108 inspections conducted in 2014/15.

Most inspections uncovered multiple violations about overtime, holiday pay and record keeping. That most inspections found violations is a good indication of widespread non-compliance with the law and suggests additional enforcement is required to deter employers from violating the law.

Occupational Health and Safety
It appears there was about a 40% jump in OHS inspections this past year to 8648 inspections (and 3618 re-inspections). About 1600 of these (re)inspections occurred around the Fort McMurray fire clean-up and rebuilding. Given this, it is unclear if this increase in inspections is permanent or just reflects an one-time bump. It is also unclear what proportion of employers these inspections affected but the usual number is about 2%. 



There were slight increases in prosecutions (13, up 2) and fines ($1.6m, up $100k) and 23 charges were laid. The court put three employers on corporate probation and also sentenced on employer to community service. There were 129 tickets issued for minor violations (54 to employers, 75 to workers). There were also 9 administrative penalties issued to employers.

Give that there were 44,543 disabling injuries reported in 2016, these numbers seem pretty low. Clearly OHS is still trying to soft-sell compliance by writing 7848 compliance orders rather than using sanctions. That employers are consistently found to be violating the Act and Code suggests that this soft approach does not appear to deter violations.

There was an inspection blitz of gas stations and convenience stores. This is likely related to concern over the safety of workers prompted by gas-and-dash deaths and violence-related fatalities. There were 378 (re)inspections between February and May 2016 with 463 orders written.

The ministry is also claiming partial credit for prior inspection blitz in the residential construction sector falls from roofs (from 20 to 9). I’m pretty skeptical of this claim. Most injuries are not reported, construction activity has been off due to the downturn (so there are fewer roofers working), and my (admittedly casual) observations of activity in west Edmonton shows no real change in the incidence of fall protection being used (almost never).

Vulnerable Workers
A joint OHS-employment standards blitz was undertaken focused on vulnerable workers employed by employers previously demonstrating chronic non-compliance (it is a bit hard to tell if this includes the ES and OHS inspections noted above—I expect so). Not surprisingly, the 287 inspections (and 201 re-inspections) yielded 472 compliance orders (mostly addressing hazard assessment, emergency preparedness, first aid and violence). This blitz continues this year. It will be interesting to see if chronic violators experience escalating sanctions.

Injury Rates and Safety Perceptions
The number and rate of lost-time claims continues to decline in Alberta. The (more expansive) disabling injury rate is also declining. That said, we should be cautious of this data. A recent study I’m currently writing up surveyed 2000 Alberta workers about their injury reporting practices and confirmed earlier studies that 69% of disabling injuries are never reported.


The government routinely surveys Albertans about their perceptions. Regarding safety, 90% of Albertans felt their workplaces were safe. It is important to note that this measure has three answers (very safe somewhat safe, and not safe). The two positive answers are combined to get the final result. This answer set certainly raises the question of biasing the results (two positive and one negative) and the government will be dropping this measure in the next business cycle.

Financing and Measurement Changes
Overall, the government spent about $61m on safe, fair and healthy workforce activities ($3m less than budgeted). It looks like about $45.3m of this came from transfers from the Workers’ Compensation Board to offset the entire cost of Occupational Health and Safety programming. There was a $2.4 million increase in the Safe, Fair and Healthy Workplaces budget, most of which was aimed at occupational health and safety (p.12).

An interesting and encouraging pattern in the report is mentioning that the performance measures will change next year. For example, instead of measuring the number of collective agreements that settle without a work stoppage, the government will measures days lost per 1000 employees (p.19). This provides a finer measure and also attributes work stoppage effects to the year in which they occurred, rather than the year in which the agreement settled.

Overall, the quality of the information in the Alberta Labour annual report continues to improve. The performance it records continues to be mixed, with staffing issues (which is basically a matter of funding) negatively affecting the ability of the government to ensure that employers comply with their statutory obligations.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 27, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Working on the highway

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Working on the Highway” by Bruce Springsteen. Originally entitled “Child bride”, the song chronicles the story of a unionized highway worker who… well, turns out to be a pedophile. It is slightly less creepy than that (the technical term is child marriage) but that is basically the gist.

The interesting "work" aspect of the song is that, after going to jail, the worker ends up doing highway work for the warden. Prison labour is a growing phenomenon is the United States. It follows a long tradition of prison operators seeking to recoup the costs of incarceration by leasing prisoners to private companies. You can read a brief synopsis here. If you have ever bought a paint brush, you've likely bought the work of a prisoner.

Often this work is framed as rehabilitative (e.g., teaching skills). In practice, the work prisoners do is rarely skilled. What it does is tire out prisoners and give them some pocket money (usually a pittance) thus making them more manageable. The profits of their labour go to the corporations that operate the jails.

These corporations have, in turn, struck deals with several states for a continuous supply of labour (regardless of the level of crime). This incentivizes incarceration and helps explain why America has 2 million prisoners (often members of visible minorities)



Friday nights pay night guys fresh out of work
Talking about the weekend scrubbing off the dirt
Some heading home to their families some looking to get hurt
Some going down to stovell wearing trouble on their shirts

I work for the county out on 95
All day I hold a red flag and watch the traffic pass me by
In my head I keep a picture of a pretty little miss
Someday mister I’m gonna lead a better life than this

Working on the highway laying down the blacktop
Working on the highway all day long I don't stop
Working on the highway blasting through the bedrock
Working on the highway, working on the highway

I met her at a dance down at the union hall
She was standing with her brothers back up against the wall
Sometimes we’d go walking down the union tracks
One day I looked straight at her and she looked straight back

Working on the highway...

I saved up my money and I put it all away
I went to see her daddy but we didn't have much to say
Son can't you see that she's just a little girl
She don't know nothing about this cruel cruel world

We lit out down to Florida we got along all right
One day her brothers came and got her and they took me in a black and white
The prosecutor kept the promise that he made on that day
And the judge got mad and he put me straight away
I wake up every morning to the work bell clang
Me and the warden go swinging on the charlotte county road gang

Working on the highway...

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Free lecture: Farm worker rights in Alberta.

On Saturday, November 4, the University of Calgary Faculty of Law is hosting a free public lecture entitled "The rights of farm workers in Alberta: Past, present and future" from 10 to noon in room 3360 Murray Fraser Hall. You can registered here. The lecture description is:
This session will discuss the historical exclusion of farm workers in Alberta from labour and employment protections, including the impact of those exclusions on farm workers and the constitutionality of the exclusions under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 
Recent changes to Alberta laws have extended some protections to farm workers, but those changes were contested, leading to the exemption of farm workers on family farms, as well as some other gaps in protections. What does the future hold for the protection of farm workers' rights in Alberta? 
Professor Jennifer Koshan will be the presenter, along with special guests Darlene A. Dunlop and Eric Musekamp of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta.
Earlier this year, the Faculty of Law hosted a book launch for Farm workers in western Canada.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Research: Exit, voice, loyalty and neglect

I’ve been reading about employee reactions to deteriorating working conditions as a part of an ongoing research project about how fear affects workers' willingness to report health and safety problems. Back in 1970, Albert Hirshman posited that members of organizations have two basic responses when things start to go badly: exit or voice. Exit is self explanatory; voice is action workers take with an eye to improving conditions (e.g., speaking out, whistleblowing).

Over time, this typology has been refined to include loyalty and neglect. Loyalty (sometimes called patience) happens when workers choose to ride out a bad patch (often in silence, but not always). Neglect is essentially workers giving up and can result in non-compliance, obstruction, and disengagement.

The exist-voice-loyalty-neglect (EVLN) model has been applied to any different situations (e.g., consumer behaviour, romantic relationships, employee turnover) and often yields interesting insights and explanations. One aspect of a good social science theory is that it has high face validity: basically it sounds plausible to an informed ear.

In reading EVLN, I was struck by how much of my own experiences I can see in this model. My first reaction to organizational troubles at Athabasca University (back in 2004-2006) was loyalty: basically I assumed that those in charge knew what they were doing and the few problems that I could see were aberrations that would be corrected or just accepted.

By 2009, it was becoming increasingly obvious to me that there were deeper issues (specifically incompetent leadership and looming financial woes) and I chose various forms of voice to try and resolve them. As it became apparent that internal governance processes were ignored (about 2011?), my use of voice escalated and turned to using external venues to generate additional pressure.

As things worsened (e.g., layoffs, constant threat of closure, non-stop violations of the collective agreement), I then turned to neglect (around 2013) where my strategy was to obstruct the employer until circumstances changed. An alternative would have been exit but, as a middle-aged guy 10+ years into a pension plan, exit wasn’t a good option.

While things are (at least superficially) better (because the employer is keeping the club behind its back instead of waving it in our face), objectively, not much has changed. A difference for me is that, absent a crisis, I’m now mostly disengaged. I still do my job but I try to limit my interactions with my employer as much as possible (increasingly I'm spending my time on my research and engaging with community partners).

For example, I don't attend optional meetings and I don't read much of the institutional email. When I have to attend a meeting, I usually do it by teleconference because that is way less emotionally demanding. Basically, I am counting down the days to retirement (just under 2900 calendar days, if you were interested) and using neglect to bridge to exit.

My colleagues have exhibited different pathways through the last 10 years. This reflects that workers select among the EVLN options based upon their level of satisfaction with, investment in, and alternatives to their current job. I see a lot of neglect these days—mostly in the form of silence—as well as moments of voice (often defensive and occurring when something threatens a core term or condition of employment—but not always).

Whether the university can re-engage its staff in constructive voice activities remains to be seen. Some of that will likely turn on the strategic plan put forward by the university and the degree to which the university can operationalize that.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 20, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Navigator

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop culture is “Navigator” by the Pogues. This song is about the workers who built the English railway system, often dying in the process. Navigator (often “navvy”) is an unskilled labourer building canals, railways and other public worker

Canada has a similar history. The canal system in central and eastern Canada was mostly built by Irish and French-Canadian labourers. Much of the difficult western stretches of the Canadian Pacific railways were built by Chinese labourers. These projects saw workers die in droves.

Even today, racialized labour remains a key feature of some industries. Approximately 20,000 workers from Mexico and the Caribbean come to Canada to harvest crops (primarily fruit and vegetables in Ontario and BC). They work and live here for up to 8 months, often in very difficult conditions, and then they return to their home countries. A recurring issue affecting migrant farm workers is their treatment by the workers; compensation system.

A recent Toronto Star report revealed that Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has been slashing injured workers’ benefits by deeming them capable of finding work in Ontario even though they have been returned to their home country (where there are no jobs for them) and barred from re-entry. In this case, the worker was deemed to be employable as a cashier even though he was illiterate and there were no cashier (or other) jobs he can perform near his home in Jamaica.

An appeal panel finally found this process of wage “deeming” (wherein workers are deemed to be employed if they are employable) is an abrogation of the workers’ rights and he is owed nine years in back compensation. This migrant worker is just one of many who have been injured and then put on a plane home, with Canada washing its hands of its obligations.



The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts,
They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts
They never drank water but whiskey by pints
And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights.

Navigator, navigator rise up and be strong
The morning is here and there's work to be done.
Take your pick and your shovel and the bold dynamite
For to shift a few tons of this earthly delight
Yes to shift a few tons of this earthly delight.

They died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where
Save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur.
By landslide and rockblast they got buried so deep
That in death if not life they'll have peace while they sleep.

Navigator, navigator rise up and be strong
The morning is here and there's work to be done.
Take your pick and your shovel and the bold dynamite
For to shift a few tons of this earthly delight
Yes to shift a few tons of this earthly delight.

Their mark on this land is still seen and still laid
The way for a commerce where vast fortunes were made
The supply of an empire where the sun never set
Which is now deep in darkness, but the railway's there yet.

Navigator, navigator rise up and be strong
The morning is here and there's work to be done.
Take your pick and your shovel and the bold dynamite
For to shift a few tons of this earthly delight
Yes to shift a few tons of this earthly delight.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Excluding domestic servants and home workers from safety laws

The public consultation period for suggestions about changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act closed yesterday. An issue that did not get much discussion is the household servant exemption set out in Section 1(s)(ii) of the Act. 

The Act currently defines occupation in a way that excludes household servants from its ambit:

1(s) “occupation” means every occupation, employment, business, calling or pursuit over which the Legislature has jurisdiction, except

(ii) work in, to or around a private dwelling or any land use in connection with the dwelling that is performed by an occupant or owner who lives in the private dwelling or a household servant of the occupant or owner;

In practice, this means workers hired by individual homeowners to perform household duties (regardless of whether they live in the home or not) have none of the health-and-safety rights accorded to virtually every other Alberta worker, such as the right to know about the hazards of their work or refuse unsafe work. And, if they are face hazardous working conditions or are injured on the job, they cannot seek assistance from occupational health and safety (OHS) officers.

By contrast, workers hired through an agency to perform the exact same household duties in a private dwelling are considered within the ambit of the Act. It is difficult to explain this double standard except as a political decision (made in 1976) to privilege homeowners (by exempting them from OHS requirements) at the expense of household servants. The changes flowing from the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act suggest that the present government no longer views as appropriate denying basic OHS protections to whole categories of workers.

The number of workers employed as household servants in Alberta is unknown. The absence of data about this population reflects that these workers span several occupational categories, including caregivers (of varying qualifications), cleaners, and maintenance personnel. And these workers have a variety of employment arrangements (e.g., some are agency workers while others are hired individually). Anecdotal reports suggest that the majority of these workers are female.

A significant identifiable group of household servants are foreign nationals who provide caregiving to children, seniors and adults with disabilities. These workers have entered Canada through the caregiver stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker program or, previously, through the Live-In Caregiver program. As of December 31, 2016, there were approximately 2145 foreign caregivers in Alberta.

The literature identifies several hazards common to household servants, including repetitive motions, lifting heavy objects, and exposures to various chemical and biological agents. Live-in caregivers are also exposed to fatigue (due to lengthy shifts) and various forms of abuse (in part, due to their social isolation).

Eliminating the exclusion of household servants from the ambit of the OHS Act will provide much needed workplace protections. Alberta already provides these workers with basic workplace rights under the Employment Standards Code (excepting around overtime and maximum hours of work. By contrast, maintaining the exclusion will disadvantage a predominantly female and often vulnerable group of workers.

If such a change were to take place, it would be important for the government to provide resources to homeowners to assist them with complying with their obligations under the Act (e.g., conducting a hazard assessment). It will also be necessary to provide workers (particularly foreign caregivers) with information about their rights and support in exercising those rights.

A second group denied OHS rights under s.1(s)(ii) are employees who work from home. Currently, the government interprets "working... in a private dwelling... that is performed by an occupant or owner who lives in the private dwelling" to include workers employed by others working out of the worker's home.

This reading of the legislation again creates the situation where two workers doing the same work (one at home and one in an office) have different rights. The home worker has no OHS rights while the office worker has a full suite of rights. 

This discrepancy also offloads the cost of remediating hazards onto the home worker. My employer, for example, has set out certain safety requirements for home workers as part of our employment (e.g., smoke detectors, CO2 detectors, fire extinguishers in our home office, first aid kits) but refuses to pay for any of these materials. The result is that most home workers have ignored this requirement.

Amending s.1(s)(ii) of the OHS Act to exclude employees performing work in their homes would remedy this situation.

 -- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 13, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Making Thunderbirds

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Making Thunderbirds” by Bob Seger. Release in 1982, this song is part of the heartland rock tradition, which valorized (mostly male) blue-collar work.

Seger drew upon his Detroit roots in writing this song, which looks at auto-workers employed by Ford (his dad worked for Ford). When Seger wrote this song, their (difficult) jobs were being automated to the detriment of the workers.
We filled conveyors
We met production
Foremen didn't waste words
and
Now the years have flown and the plants have changed
And you're lucky if you work
I could not find a video for this (it was not released as a single) but you can listen to the audio below:



The big line moved one mile an hour
So loud it really hurt
The big line moved so loud
It really hurt
Back in '55

We were makin' thunderbirds
We filled conveyors
We met production
Foremen didn't waste words
We met production
Foremen didn't waste words
We were young and proud
We were makin' thunderbirds

We were makin' thunderbirds
We were makin' thunderbirds
They were long and low and sleek and fast
They were all you ever heard
Back in '55

We were makin' thunderbirds
Now the years have flown and the plants have changed
And you're lucky if you work
The big line moves but you're lucky if you work
Back in '55
We were makin' thunderbirds

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Youth employment in Alberta

This morning, the government is hosting a consultations about regulations governing the employment of minors. I wasn't able to attend this consultation but the government kindly allowed me to submit written comments that I am reprising below

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comment on the employment of minors. I have structured my comments to follow the sequence outlined in the discussion guide. I have omitted questions where I had nothing to say.

Artistic Endeavours
1. The definition of artistic endeavor for children 12 and under is complete in my view.

2. I do not see a need to allow children 12 and under to be employed as coaches or assistant coaches. Such activities often involve some element of risk (to the coach and to the athlete) that children under the age of 12 are unlikely to be ready to experience or manage (particularly in a paid role).

3. The proposed definition does align with the types of work appropriate for children aged 12 and under. That said, I note that childcare (i.e., babysitting) is not contemplated as a potential form of work for children 12 and under. I see it is mentioned as an acceptable form of work for 13- to 15-year-olds. Based on this, I infer that babysitting is a prohibited form of work for children 12 and under.

I agree with disallowing domestic work for children under 12 because there are significant hazards (both to the sitter and to the sat) associated with it. Babysitting usually entails working alone (often at night), can include food preparation and equipment operation, and (if something goes wrong) the consequences can be significant.

Hazardous Work
1. Hazardous work is that which gives rise to meaningful risk of serious harm to the worker. Young workers may be at greater risk of harm due to inexperience and/or physiological immaturity.

2. I see you have noted that some work with animals may be too hazardous for 16- to 17-year-olds to perform on farms. Looking through the preliminary definition of hazardous work in attachment 4, I wanted to flag four agricultural implications.
a. Much farm work entails effectively working alone due to the distances involved (even a small grain farm is likely at least 160 acres). 
b. Much farm work entails working with or near powered mobile equipment (which is a significant source of farm injury).

c. Farm work often entails working near (rather than with—this seems to be an oversight on your list) pesticides and excessive noise and such exposures are particularly hazardous to young workers with developing bodies .

d. The variability of farm work creates an environment where hazards are highly dynamic (i.e., exposures change unpredictably) thus using permits may be ineffective at controlling exposures.
While I appreciate the political sensitivities around regulating the employment of 16- to 17-year-olds on farms and ranches, excluding workers from such work may be the most effective way to prevent injuries. Interestingly, the discussion guide suggests there will be no prohibited work—hazardous work would just require employers to obtain a permit.

I see the political utility of not barring 16- to 17-year-olds from any work and, instead, kicking decisions about hazardous work into a private and opaque permitting process. But, really, are you going to approve a permit for a 16-year-old to engage in firefighting or mining or asbestos abatement or installing power lines? It would be more honest to have a list of prohibited work and a list of work requiring a permit. Further, not establishing a list of prohibited occupations makes it easier for future governments to pressure bureaucrats into approving permits for such work. Having a list or prohibited occupations in regulations forces politicians to own such a decision.

3. I would support excluding youth from hazardous job sites regardless of the work the youth is performing. As I noted above, working near hazards is often injurious to young workers.

4. I don’t believe it is possible to define, other than in general terms (along the lines of the definition of “competent” in the OHS Code), what suitable supervision would entail. It is too context dependent.

Light Work
1. I would remove painting because (1) youth are particularly vulnerable to chemical hazards due to their generally smaller size and less developed physiology, (2) the qualification “environmentally friendly substances” is so vague as to be unenforceable, and (3) painting often involves working at heights. I appreciate that work over 3 metres would be considered hazardous but work under 3 meters (often using improvised platforms) also entails significant risk of injury for youth.

Again, appreciating the political sensitivities of the farm and ranch community, given the hazardous nature of the worksite, the small number of 13- to 15-year-olds who will be employed, and the significant restrictions set out in Attachment 3, I would suggest a prohibition on employing 13- to 15-year-olds on a farm or ranch is the most parsimonious way to protect them.

2. While I would not argue that youth should be precluded from working in restaurants, I would point out that my research on adolescent employment in Alberta suggests that employers frequently ignore existing task and equipment restrictions for young workers (e.g., fryers, grills, slicers) as well as hour of work and paycheque-deduction standards, and hazard assessment and parental consent requirements.

More over, young workers generally have no idea that such circumstances are contrary to the Code and their parents neither know their children’s rights nor know what is happening in the workplace. This suggests that there needs to be significant regulation of this work. Simply requiring a permit or a voluntary filing of documents is unsatisfactory because many employers just ignore the requirement. This in turn, reflects that there is virtually no chance such a violation will be picked up due to limited enforcement activity and, if it is, there is no prospect of a meaningful consequence for the employer. In short, you need some sort of meaningful enforcement mechanism.

5. Given the expansive nature of the proposed light work list, I can’t see many instances where a permit would be necessary.

Permitting
1. The biggest issue with Alberta employment laws overall is that employers simply ignore them. There is little reason to think that employers will comply with permitting requirements unless it is combined with specific and significant sanctions for non-compliance.

3. Permits should require the employer to submit a hazard assessment and control plan and written evidence of parental consent.

4. Permits should not be issued to employers with past records of employment standards or occupational health and safety violations or orders or workplace injuries.

In addition, I would suggest Alberta should adopt Saskatchewan’s requirement for workers to complete a worker preparedness course prior to employment. Such a course could be offered online or through the school system. Young workers are at a significant knowledge and power disadvantage in the workplace and the least the government can do is to provide them with an opportunity to learn about their rights and their employer’s obligations. Such a requirement would have more teeth of a permit was required to hire anyone under 16 but, based on the material provided, I take it that such a requirement is not under discussion.

It is also worth noting the research conducted by Alison Taylor (formerly of the U of A but now of UBC). She and her co-investigators examined the experiences of youth engaged in apprenticeship programming through Alberta’s RAP program (and Ontario’s analog). Of concern is the high level of injury among these young workers. This research warrants consideration as the government examines appropriate controls on apprenticeship and work experience programs.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide my feedback.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 6, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: The Lonesome death of Hattie Carroll

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” written by Bob Dylan. The story recounts the 1963 death of an African-American barmaid. She was killed by a wealthy, drunk, and racist white man (and later slumlord) in Maryland and who later served just six months in jail.

It’s comforting to think of the kind of systemic racism that leads to largely unpunished deaths is a think of the past. Yet it clearly isn’t and it remains embedded in employment. Last month, there was an undercover investigation by the Toronto Star into conditions at a North York industrial bakery where three workers have died.

The real surprise here is that only three workers have died. The working conditions are terrible and the plant basically runs by exploiting (often female) immigrants who have few alternatives to earn a living and aren’t likely to exercise (or even know) their safety rights. The company had been dinged for 191 health and safety violations since 1999. The real number of violations is likely to be much higher given the anemic degree of OHS inspection in most Canadian provinces.

Days after the story dropped, the company pled guilty to various OHS violations and paid a $300,000 fine. This sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t. The quid pro quo for the guilty plea?
As a result of the guilty plea, the Crown withdrew charges against Diaby’s supervisor at the factory, as well as charges related to two other unrelated incidents that occurred at Fiera Foods in October 2015 and June 2016, when workers suffered “critical” arm injuries.
So, basically, pay one fine to avoid prosecution on other charges. I don’t imagine we’ve heard the last of the story about health and safety violations at this bakery. What this tells us is that racism (and sexism) don’t just exist in Canadian employment, but in fact are a structural part of employment. Companies rely upon exploiting vulnerable workers for competitive advantage and will (despite current regulatory efforts) ignore their most basic obligations under law.

I picked this Christy Moore version of the song because I can’t stand Dylan’s voice.



William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin',
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station,
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain't the time for
your tears.

William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years,
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him,
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders,
And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was
snarling,
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain't the time for
your tears.

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage,
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn't even talk to the people at the table,
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table,
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain't the time for
your tears.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel,
To show that all's equal and that the courts are on the
level
And that the strings in the books ain't pulled and
persuaded,
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught 'em,
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason,
Who just happened to be feelin' that way without warnin'.
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,

And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.

Oh, but you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all
fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face, for now's the time for your

-- Bob Banetson

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jason Kenney weighs in on Bill 6

Monday, United Conservative Party leadership candidate Jason Kenney promised to “deep-six” Bill 6 (Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act).

Kenney starts by claiming Bill 6 was an “attack on farmers”. An alternate way to view Bill 6 is an effort to better protect farm workers who have traditionally been highly vulnerable to employer mistreatment. Kenney declines to explain how Bill 6 negatively affects farmers and ranchers and thus constitutes an attack (perhaps because the actual effect is very small).

Kenney then asserts Bill 6 was imposed without consultation. That is not true. The government of Alberta consulted with farmers for years on safety. The Tories concluded education was enough. The NDs drew different conclusion and passed Bill 6. They then engaged in further and lengthy consultations on the substance of various regulations. One can reasonably disagree with the outcome of consultations. One cannot reasonably claim there were no consultations.

But wait, then Kenney says, even if there were consultations, the resulting “Bill 6 is simply another example of government knows best interference.” So I guess no form of consultation would have been good enough and his concerns about them was just a rhetorical strawman?

Anyhow… regulation is not the same thing as interference. Regulation is legitimate government activity designed bring about the public good when, for example, the market fails to do so. Giving workers basic health and safety rights and access to injury compensation is a well established form of regulation in every other industry in the country (and other countries) and in agriculture in most other provinces.

The NDs are then accused of having “no respect, understanding or appreciation for the values and traditions that make Alberta strong”. An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence. There is none provided. Instead, Kenney transitions into platitudes about “hard work”.

He ends with a promise to deep six bill 6. It is not clear what this means but he suggests developing workplace safety rules that “recognize the unique circumstances” of farms and ranches. Since the NDs have not yet rolled out their own farm OHS rules it is unclear how he can know that the NDs’ rules won’t recognize these circumstances (now who is being ideological, Jason?).

He ends by suggesting it is possible to “modernize workplace safety so that everyone wins.” This glosses over the fact that workplace safety regulations are basically about distributing costs among employers and workers. Safer workplaces see employers bear additional costs. Less safe workplaces see costs (in the form of injuries) borne by workers.

Overall, a pretty vague and facile statement.

-- Bob Barnetson

Research: Trans workers and precarity

This summer, I ran across a very interesting article exploring how trans workers face greater precarity of employment. “Gender Transition and Job In/Security: Trans* Un/der/employment Experiences and Labour Anxieties in Post-Fordist Society” explores how the pressure on workers to “use their bodies and working personas to create pleasant interactions and good experiences for customers and clientele” can negatively affect those workers whose bodies fall outside of conventional norms of beauty or normality (p. 168).

In effect, gender normative expression acts as a key determinant of employment. The devaluing of non-gender-conforming workers negatively affects them economically, physically, and psychologically. This is a fascinating article that explores the treatment of trans workers—something that I don't think I have every encountered in any of the HR texts or research that I’ve examined.

This lacuna in HR pedagogy is itself fascinating because not talking about trans workers reinforces (perhaps unintentionally) the social exclusion of trans workers. It reminds me a bit of how HR texts dealt with sexual orientation prior to the Vriend decision (i.e., they ignored sexual orientation). Interestingly, since then, HR texts have largely continued to marginalize issues of sexual orientation by lumping them into a brief discussion of how to avoid complaints of discrimination on the basis of various protected statuses. 

Few books explicitly sexual orientation in the sections they have on diversity. In this context, diversity basically means female workers, workers with disabilities, and workers of colour (although largely exclusive of Indigenous workers). As this article reveals, the silence of HR around the employment experiences of trans workers comes at a great cost to the workers themselves.

-- Bob Barnetson



Friday, September 29, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Company Town

A few months back, Mark McCutchen and I published an article examining the presence and (mostly) absence of unions in science fiction. A book that came out between finishing that research and having it published is Company Town by Madeline Ashby (Tor, 2016).

Set on an oil-rig/town near Newfoundland in the near future (where oil is in decline), this cyberpunk novel focuses on Hwa, who is a (female) bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada. Selling sex has been decriminalized in this future and sex workers have developed a hiring hall of sorts, which provides services, including security, pensions, and a client database.

The novel quickly becomes much more complex (leading to an ending that felt somehow rushed and a bit hard to follow). In this novel, the union essentially serves as part of the novel’s setting and has little to no impact on the plot. This fits rather neatly into the typology Mark and I developed about how unions are treated and used in SF. Unusual among SF treatments of unions, though, Ashby frames the union positively.

More broadly the book is largely in keeping with capitalist realism. Capitalist realism is
a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action (Fisher, 2009, p. 16).
It produces a business ontology that privileges corporate business as the model for all other activities, from political governance to family life, to the extent that “the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable” (Ibid, p. 8).

Capitalist realism not only “[claims] to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality,” (Ibid, p. 11) it also insists on everyone’s “‘realistic’ acceptance that capitalism is the only game in town” (Ibid, p. 15) and leaves little room for collective efforts to negotiate limits on exploitation.

To be fair, the United Sex Workers of Canada does make some efforts to regulate the working conditions of its members and thereby buck the system. But it does so within an essentially hypercapitalist system.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the novel (which is good), but rather as an observation about the tendency of SF (as a genre) to situate stories within a capitalist framework and thereby constraining how we think about the future.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Should Edmonton become a sanctuary city for undocumented migrants?

A few weeks back, there was discussion of making Edmonton a sanctuary city for undocumented workers. The gist is that Edmonton would adopt a policy whereby Edmonton’s estimated 25,000 undocumented workers could access government services without being questioned about their immigration status (which triggers fear of deportation).

An interesting question the often comes up is why do foreign nationals stay in Canada after their official residency period has ended. I don't recall any specific research on that in Canada (although I also haven't looked very hard for it) but I did run across this article addressing the motives of undocumented agricultural workers in Idaho.

While most of the farmworkers in this study immigrated to the United States from Mexico for economic reasons, their reasons for staying are more decidedly social:
The reason that respondents have decided to stay is because they have greater social responsibilities, connections and ties to local communities, and a greater sense of belonging, which increases if they have family in the U.S. (p. 43)
The longer undocumented workers remain in the US, the greater the likelihood that they plan to stay in the US. Being married and/or having children also increases the propensity of workers to stay.

These findings ring true to me when tested against my (modest) experience with undocumented workers. Most came in hopes of a better economic life. As their residency permits expired, many stay, both because their families are better off with them working in Alberta and because they have put down roots. Staying without permission is seen as a better choice than returning to their home country. 

In 2016, Migrante Alberta estimated 80% of Calgary temporary foreign workers in low-skill occupations stay (at least for a time) after the expiry of their permits. Most remained employed in some capacity.

One of the challenges of being undocumented is accessing government services (e.g., health care, driver’s license, schooling). In January 2016, Alberta changed its health care policy in order to provide coverage to children born in Canada of undocumented workers, visitors, denied refugee claimants, and migrant workers. That said, fear of revealing undocumented status remains a barrier to accessing services. And a covered child’s parents must still pay for their own medical treatment out of pocket.

This policy leads to heartbreaking and profoundly unfair outcomes. For example, Maria Victoria Venancio was a temporary foreign worker who was paralyzed after being hit cycling to her job in Edmonton in 2012. Unable to work, her work permit was not renewed but she stayed in Canada for medical treatment. In 2015, the former Conservative government denied her health-care coverage. They could have provided her coverage but feared that would open the door to other undocumented workers expecting the same treatment.

Venancio was granted a two-year open work permit in 2015, allowing her to remain in the country legally. This, in turn, meant the province would cover her health-care costs. In 2017, she was granted permanent residency. While Venancio’s case offers hope in the most extreme cases, government policy continues to be a barrier to other undocumented people—most of whom are employed—in accessing basic health care.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 22, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Wichita Lineman

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Wichita Lineman”, originally recorded by Glen Campbell. It was written about a telephone line man that writer Jimmy Webb saw a top a lonely pole while driving through Oklahoma.

Webb combined this striking visual with demands of the job (“”And if it snows that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain) and a backstory (perhaps his own) where the lineman pines for someone (“And I need you more that want you, and I want you for all time”). The result is a haunting portrait of a lonely man in a lonely job.

The song has been covered by a lot of artists (e.g., REM, Guns and Roses, Billy Joel, Stone Temple Pilots). I picked this Cassandra Wilson version because the vocal is clear and jazz interpretation is interesting and moody. You can hear Campbell’s original version. Interestingly, he handles the awkward rising notes at end of each verse better than anyone else.



I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road
Searchin' in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin' in the wire, I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation but it don't look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

[Instrumental Interlude]

And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

[Instrumental to end]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

OHS protections for pregnant and breastfeeding workers


Last week, the Parkland Institute published a blog post written by myself, and two research collaborators. It provided some important context for the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act review. The deadline for submissions to the review is October 16. 

An issue that has received little discussion so far is protective leave for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Yesterday, for example, a worker reported being terminated because she was pregnant because the employer was concerned that the lifting requirement of the job was to great for her. 

The company, now the subject of a human rights complaint, disputes this characterization. But:
The temp agency that hired Deghanifard, Manpower, told the commission they were informed Deghanifard's assignment had ended because her role involved lifting heavy items and in her condition the manager felt it could be harmful to her.
There are approximately 50,000 pregnancies in Alberta each year. Pregnant and nursing women face unique physical, biological, and chemical workplace health hazards. Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act requires workers to refuse unsafe work but, in practice, few workers refuse unsafe work for fear of job loss.

Alberta’s Human Rights Act requires employers to accommodate pregnant and breastfeeding workers to the point of undue hardship. Workers who are not accommodated can complain, but such complaints take months and years to resolve. During this time, workers who are denied accommodation may be without financial support.

Quebec provides pregnant or breastfeeding women who work in conditions that threaten their health or the health of their unborn or breastfeeding children (and who can produce a medical certificate to substantiate these concerns) with access to (1) immediate re-assignment, or (2) protective leave funded by the La Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (i.e., the workers’ compensation board).

Alberta’s current health and safety protections for pregnant and breast-feeding women are inadequate. Providing pregnant and breast-feeding workers with wage-loss benefits should their employer refuse to address workplace hazards will make workplaces safer for this uniquely vulnerable group. The cost of any such leaves can be recouped from the employer via a special workers’ compensation levy.

-- Bob Barnetson