Saturday, September 22, 2012

Deregulation Kills Workers

The CBC has done a good job tracking the story of a gas station employee killed as he tried to stop a customer who was driving away with over $100 in gas without paying.  I'm glad I wasn't the only one who saw the original story on the weekend and immediately guessed that the cause was that his employer was docking his pay for theft losses.  Now, the employer (a Shell franchisee) in this case denies it, but the deceased man's family (who insist he was penalized) are much more likely in my opinion to be telling the truth. 

The man, likely earning at most minimum wage plus a dollar or two, in the face of seeing several days worth of wages driving off was prompted to put his own life at extreme risk facing off against someone in a vehicle. 

This is just a good case in point to remind ourselves at least anecdotally how regulation (with adequate enforcement) saves lives.  Ontario actually has a law that prohibits employers from holding their employees financially accountable for any assets the employee doesn't have sole control over, but it's obvious that there is widespread under the radar disobedience of this law by the station owners.  Now, this is what happens even with the law prohibiting it.  Imagine what would happen if this law were repealed?  The numerous anecdotal reports of gas station employees facing such penalties (and to which I can add my brother, who worked for a real cheapskate station owner many years ago) show that the incentives are in favour of owners outsourcing this risk to their staff, and the power disparity between owner and employee is such that they will almost certainly get away with it. 
The usual conservative/libertarian answer to this is "if you don't like it, find another job" - but even for individuals able to do that, the industry practice wouldn't change and many more clerks will get hurt or killed over gasoline thefts.  No, if you actually want to prevent these tragedies, regulation is the answer.  We're often told that business owners deserve every penny they can squeeze out of their businesses because they take all the risks in opening them, I'm not convinced of this, but I do know they should not be allowed to delegate downside risk to staff with no comparable upside opportunity. 

There will still be cases where regulations are ineffective or do more harm than good for whatever reason, but such cases do not negate the basic rationale for regulations:  Employers almost always have more power than employees and if left to their own devices, many will exploit that power imbalance in unfair and socially harmful ways.

A Liberal MPP has proposed a bill to make pre-payment at Ontario gas stations mandatory and the Ontario Federation of Labour has moved quickly to set up a hotline where people can report gas station owners who violate this law. 

No comments:

Post a Comment