Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Honduras, and the U.S. border crisis no one is talking about

The Honduran kids are starting to pile up in detention centres along the U.S. border. Since Oct. 1, about 52,000 “unaccompanied minors” have been caught by by U.S border patrols in the southwest. Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorians mostly.
That’s extraordinary. About 200 kids caught every day, after a dangerous, frightening journey of at least 2,400 kilometres. Likely 60,000 kids this year.
When 599 Chinese migrants showed up in rusty boats on B.C. shores in 1999, Canadians were plunged into panic. 

The same number of young migrants get arrested on the U.S. border every three days. Others make it across without being caught, or turn back on the journey.
They’re political fodder in the U.S., their stories reconstructed to fit the narrative desired by each side. 
Really, they’re kids. Some set out on incredible journeys on their own. Others were helped by families who took on huge debts - $4,000 to $6,000 - to hire a coyote. When their children are caught at the border, and returned, the debt remains.
The road to the U.S. is littered with bodies. The journey often involves riding a freight train called El Bestia. Gangs prey on migrants.
Imagine the desperation of parents who send their children on such a journey.
Canadians should understand the impulse to seek a better life. About 96 per cent of us come from somewhere else.
Those days are gone. Even as trade agreements removed barriers so capital and goods could move freely between countries, workers weren’t allowed the same freedom. They were trapped.
It makes sense for a Honduran kid to gamble on the journey to the U.S. They have seen the benefits - almost 20 per cent of GDP is money sent home by foreign workers, mostly in the U.S., mostly illegal. Everyone knows friends or family members who have made the trip. (And everyone knows people who have started the journey and never been heard from again.)
The U.S. is trying to turn back the tide. It’s fighting rumours an amnesty applies to minor migrants. This week, Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson warned parents of the risks children face travelling to the U.S.
But the day after Johnson’s warning was released, the U.S. State Department updated its travel advisory for Honduras. 
“Critically high” levels of crime and violence. Highest murder rate in the world. Corrupt police. Crimes often not even investigated and criminals operating “with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras.” Narcotraffickers  and gangs, “known to commit crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion, carjacking, armed robbery, rape, and other aggravated assaults.”
Overblown, I’d say.
But if that’s the official U.S. governments position, it can not be surprised that Honduran teens are heading to America.
Escaping violence is a motivation. The gangs in the cities - imports from the U.S. - kill casually.
But mostly, the young migrants are looking for a chance.
I was amazed by the hopefulness of Hondurans in our time there. There are few jobs, schools are bad and opportunities are desperately scarce. But people open small stores, or take courses to prepare for a job that probably doesn’t exist. Kids stay in school, sign up for trade courses. It is at once inspiring and heartbreaking.
Embarking on a journey to the U.S. is a demonstration of that hopefulness.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez tried to shift responsibility to the U.S. The children are war refugees, he said, driven out of their country by violence fuelled by the drug trade.
Americans (and Canadians) consume cocaine. Without them, the drug would not be transported through Honduras and other countries too poor to control the business.
True enough. The 43-year-long “war on drugs” is a costly, destructive failure that has enriched and empowered a few - gangs and cocaine cartels included - and accomplished, literally, nothing while resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Drugs are cheaper and more available than ever.
But Honduras would be a bad place to be young even if not a single of cocaine moved through the country. Gangs and poverty and a broken society are the real problems.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it says on the Statue of Liberty. Canada embraced the same sentiments, without the poetry.
Except today, we don’t want those masses to show up. 
The fears about foreign workers and wages are understandable. For me, the problem is with the word “temporary.” We should welcome new citizens, not people brought here to be cheap labour and then sent home.
The kids flooding the U.S. border are risking everything for a chance at a new life. 
And we’re locking them up and sending them back were they came from.

Update: This great graphic shows where the kids are coming from.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Time for BCTF, government to prepare for fall legislated settlement (and save summer school)

I’m sure Vince Ready is busy. But I expect he also decided against getting involved in the teachers’ strike/lockout because there is no real chance of a mediated settlement now.
In a past life I was involved in labour negotiations. In one difficult set of talks, a mediator was appointed to help us reach a deal. He arrived, met with management and union, and booked out less than an hour later. The parties were too far apart, he said, and mediation would be a waste of time. Good luck.
That’s true in this dispute. There are too many issues on the table, the parties are too far apart and there’s no sign that either side really wants a deal. The BCTF’s goofy strike tactic, at a time when the government feels under no pressure from parents or public, served only to cost teachers an average $3,500 in lost pay and, by increasing their expectations, make a deal less likely. 
If the parties were really keen on a negotiated settlement, they wouldn’t have spent the last week exchanging insults through the media.
There are useful things that could be done now. The parties could agree on an independent costing of current proposals, for example. That might help identify potential areas of compromise. 
But I’d expect the dispute to continue into September. Barring creative solutions - which are possible but unlikely - a legislated settlement would be imposed just before school resumes, or after a couple of weeks of strike.
That means both sides should be focusing on winning public support for their positions on key issues. If government believes the public broadly supports the teachers, the back-to-work legislation will provide at least some gains. If not, the union will fare less well.
For the union, that means dropping proposals unlikely to win public support, like improvements to an already generous benefits plan. It means recognizing that a salary deal is going to look very much like other public sector settlements. And it means focusing on class size and composition issues.
For the government, that means quitting bargaining in public, stopping the expense of taxpayers’ money on ad campaigns fighting the union and come up with a serious response to the court rulings on class size and composition.
Practically, that means the BCTF should immediately announce that summer school classes will go ahead. There is no benefit to striking over the summer - it won’t put pressure on management to settle. And shutting down summer school will cost the union parents’ support and deprive some members of income they were counting on. (The government has already lifted the lockout for summer school.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Clark's pension costs taxpayers $76k a year, but disability rate increase not 'affordable'

Premier Christy Clark scores top marks for hypocrisy in explaining why British Columbians on disability benefits, and their children, should live in poverty.
Clark said this week that she knows the benefits, frozen since 2007, are too low. But British Columbia is just too poor to provide any increase. That will have to wait for some unknown future when it is “affordable,” she said.
But Clark believes it’s perfectly affordable to have taxpayers contribute $76,000 a year to fund her pension.
A single parent with one child on disability benefits in British Columbia - someone like Clark - receives $1,272 a month. That’s up to $570 for rent and $672 for everything else. They are expected to raise a child on $15,000 a year. 
Increasing disability assistance rates after seven frozen years is impossible, Clark says. Not “affordable.”
But MLAs believe that they need up to $1,580 a month for a temporary second home in Victoria to use when the legislature is sitting. That’s affordable.
They believe a pension plan that requires four dollars from taxpayers for every dollar paid by MLAs is affordable. The taxpayer contribution to fund the plan works out to an average $48,000 a year for each of the 85 MLAs.
The claim that British Columbia can’t afford to raise income assistance and disability assistance rates is simply false. 
The reality is that government has chosen to leave some 33,000 children and their families in poverty. People on assistance benefits are forced into substandard, sometimes dangerous housing, and denied the ability to afford the basics of life. 
It’s destructive for everyone. A single person is supposed to find housing that costs less than $375 and live on $122 a week. That is a grim existence for anyone, even people who are on income assistance for short periods. 
For people with few job options - those on disability assistance and with “persistent multiple barriers to employment” - it’s especially dire. They represent about two-thirds of recipients.
And government-mandated poverty is especially devastating for children. It does lasting damage to their health, educational achievements and social adjustment, and damages their prospects in life. Raising the rates now will save money for taxpayers in future, improve their lives and build a stronger province.
Clark needs to be honest. The rates haven’t been increased since 2007 because government has decided the needs of those people aren’t as important as its other priorities.
Including pay raises, pensions and benefits for MLAs.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Expect a teachers' strike in September

The chances of reaching a new teachers’ contract this month range from slim to none. 
There can always be breakthroughs when both parties sit down and bargain seriously, especially with the help of a mediator.
But that usually requires some preconditions. 
The number of outstanding issues needs to be reduced, and the distance between employer and union positions narrowed. The negotiators need to have prepared their principals - politicians and union members, in this case - for inevitable compromises.
And both sides need to feel under pressure to reach an agreement.
None of those are in place. There are still too many issues on the table for effective final bargaining - benefit improvements, prep time, salary grid changes, class size and composition. 
And the parties are too far apart. On pay, for example, the union wants a $5,000 signing bonus and raises that would increase pay by 8.2 per cent by 2017. The employer proposes $1,200 and raises that would see pay rise 4.6 per cent by the same date. The union’s proposed signing bonus would cost $150 million; the government’s proposal would cost $36 million. The union wage proposal would cost the government about $75 million more a year by 2017 than the government proposal.
The government hasn’t come up with any legitimate response to court decisions that demand bargaining on class size and composition based on the clauses eliminated when it ripped up contracts.
The B.C. Teachers Federation has raised members’ expectations, making it hard to sell any eventual compromise deal. If negotiators go public with a long list of proposals after a strike has been launched, those become the benchmarks for union members. 
And the union’s ill-timed strike is costing a typical member $350 a day in gross pay (without increasing pressure on the government). Some have characterized the $5,000 signing bonus as necessary replacement for the money they lost by striking. Their position is increasingly entrenched.
All those factors make a settlement unlikely.
So does the apparent belief of at least some participants on both sides that this process is a battle of right and wrong. Negotiations are about reaching a deal based on what is possible, not a holy crusade.
More talks in the next two weeks are unlikely to result in a settlement. But they might resolve at least a few items, or bring a little more clarity about what a final deal would look like.
But at this point, the union and government need to begin considering how they will deal with the impact of a strike in September. 
Ultimately, parents won’t stand for schools to be closed. If a deal can’t be reached at the negotiating table, one will be imposed.
Public opinion is critical in that process. If the government believes the public sides with the teachers, the imposed settlement will reflect that. If government thinks they have support, the deal will give less to teachers. 
It’s a lousy way to reach agreement on pay and working conditions for some 33,000 employees. But until the process is improved, it’s what we’ve got.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Teachers' June strike a tactical error

I don’t understand the teachers’ union decision to strike with two weeks left in the school year.
Parents resent school closures at any time; they impose serious hardships on working families. My entirely unscientific sampling in the Comox Valley suggests parents blame both government and union for the strike/lockout.
But shutting down schools now has little real impact. End-of-year events are lost, but starting summer holidays two weeks early doesn’t pose much of a threat to learning.
Government can wait out the strike without much pressure from parents. Based on the first reports on weekend bargaining, that appears to be what has happened.
And starting today, a typical teacher will be losing about $350 a day in gross pay. Union strike pay is $50 a day, but the fund is virtually empty.
By the end of the week, an average teacher will be out $1,750, the equivalent of a 2.4-per-cent raise. 
Strikes and lockouts are part of bargaining. But they’re destructive, and usually launched as a last resort. 
It’s hard to see the B.C. Teachers’ Federation at such a point. There is no obvious deadline for a new contract to be reached. The union is probably nervous - rightly - that the government would use the length of negotiations as a reason to impose a contract. But a strike now doesn’t change that and might strengthen the government’s position.
If a deal isn’t reached in the next two weeks, the strike could make reaching a settlement more difficult. Teachers would be out $3,000 or $4,000, and some would expect the union to get that money back in a new contract.
And the union has limited its options for job action in September.
I’ll look at the issues once the information is clearer. But the BCTF's tactical decision to strike now is baffling.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Five observations on the Ontario election

1) A record of corruption and incompetence doesn’t disqualify a party from forming government. The Ontario Liberals cost taxpayers almost $1 billion when they cancelled two power plants in 2011 to improve their election chances, and were either dishonest or incompetent in covering up the real costs. It wasn’t enough to get them kicked out of office. In fact, their share of the popular vote rose from 38 per cent in 2011 to 39 per cent this week. 
Opposition parties can't count on voters to punish parties for past wrongdoing.
2) Changing leaders, as the Liberals did, appears to be like a shaking an Etch-a-Sketch over your head. Everything is erased and you get a fresh start.
3) A large number of voters are more-or-less happy with the status quo or don’t believe the promises of those proposing change. The Ontario Conservatives said they would cut 100,000 public sector jobs and cut spending sharply. It didn’t sell. (The Conservative campaign also stumbled when its plan to create one million jobs was revealed to be based on bogus numbers, and leader Tim Hudak refused to acknowledge the giant error.)
4) Our winner-take-all election system doesn’t reflect voter preferences. The Liberals took 39 per cent of the votes and 55 per cent of the seats; the Conservatives 31 per cent of the votes and 25 per cent of seats; the NDP 24 per cent of the votes and 20 per cent of the seats. (The Greens captured five per cent of the votes, but didn’t elect any candidates.) 
5) Third parties face a tough road. Despite the Liberal record, the NDP failed to attract voters, up just one percentage point from 2011. There was little to choose between Liberals and New Democrats in terms of policy, and the electoral system encouraged those opposed to the Conservatives to vote Liberal.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Private schools, the strike/lockout and inequality

Not all parents are worried about school closures in the current teachers’ dispute.
Christy Clark and thousands of others have opted out of the public school system and pay large fees for children to go to private schools. They are not affected by the strike/lockout.
But they’re still a factor. About 76,000 children are enrolled in private schools, about 12 per cent of all students. Their parents tend to be affluent, educated, and highly concerned about their children’s education. 
If their sons and daughters were being kept from school, they would be cranky. And they have much greater ability to make life unpleasant for government. They have the money, time, energy and commitment to raise a mighty fuss about closed schools or even missed days.
Private schools place them above the fray, and offer another reason to shell out the fees - $6,000 to $20,000 per year, typically.
More and more parents have been choosing private schools, despite the cost. In the last four years, public school enrolment has dropped about four per cent, while private schools have attracted about 10 per cent more students.
A decade ago, 9.6 per cent of students were in private schools. Now it’s 12 per cent.
The Liberals pride themselves on a business-like approach to governing and good management. But a business that was losing more and more market share to competitors would decide something was wrong and fix it. 
The government, and the people in charge of the education ministry, haven’t done that.
Nor has their been any serious discussion about the impact of an expanding private school system.
We like to think that we’re an egalitarian society and people with intelligence, talent and drive have a relatively equal chance at success. 
Quality public education is one of the most important elements in creating that kind of society.
A two-tier education system undermines equality of opportunity. The income of parents, not talent and effort, becomes a critical factor in the kind of life children can achieve. 
That’s wasteful for society; the talent of a significant portion of the population isn’t fully utilized. 
And it entrenches and increases inequality. 
There’s a persistent fallacy that inequality just happens, or is the result of economic forces beyond our control. 
But inequality in Canada reflects policy choices that governments have made. Cutting unemployment benefits or freezing disability payments makes some people at the bottom of the income ladder poorer. Reducing income taxes makes people at the top end richer.
The choices that have led to an increase in private school enrolments will increase inequality in the future.
That’s not to say government should ban private schools. Parents have a right to choose.
But the government now subsidizes private education with per-pupil grants at 50 per cent of the grants to public school districts. The subsidy could be 40 per cent. It could be eliminated entirely. It could be increased. Those are policy choices, and some would slow the move to private schools and reduce future inequality.
Or the government could look harder at why parents are judging the public system inadequate and address those issues. It could do research parents are choosing private schools and address those concerns.
None of this has a direct relation to the current labour dispute. The teachers’ union is seeking to improve working conditions and income for members; the government is trying to save money. Both sides talk about the students, but their own interests come first. That’s the nature of union-management negotiations. (It might that the best thing for students would be a 10-per-cent pay reduction in teachers’ pay, with the money used to hire an additional 4,000 teachers. No one could reasonably expect the union to agree to such a change.)
Nor is it a partisan issue. Private school enrolment, as a percentage of all students, increased at virtually the same rate during the last NDP governments.
It should be a concern. We claim to believe it’s important that all children have a fair chance at making the most of their lives. 
The increasing emergence of a two-tier education system shows we don’t actually care about that principle. Or, for that matter, that we recognize the unfairness and corrosiveness of increasing inequality.
Footnote: Not all parents who send their children to private schools are rich, not all private schools are ritzy. The current per-pupil grant to public school districts is about $6,900; private schools get $3,450.