Monday, January 26, 2009

Auto productivity gives Canada an edge

As negotiations for concessions start at reeling General Motors and Chrysler, the Canadian Auto Workers says workers at assembly plants here hold a labour cost edge over their union and non-union counterparts in the United States.

In efforts to debunk public impressions that workers will need to slash pay because of a big labour cost gap before the automakers can obtain government loans, the CAW says better productivity here gives Canadian workers a strong overall advantage over competing non-unionized employees at foreign-based automakers in the U.S.

That should limit demands for major concessions here, union leaders argue.

The CAW, which represents some 20,000 workers at GM and Chrysler in Canada, says its members earn an average of $67 an hour in wages and benefits That translates into about $53 (U.S.) an hour because of a falling Canadian currency during the last six months.

Hourly wages and benefits at unionized assembly plants in the U.S. are about $60, while labour costs are $49 at non-unionized plants of Japanese, Korean and German-based automakers in the U.S.

But a senior CAW official says an internal study released today shows Canadian workers have a significant edge in productivity that gives them an overall labour cost advantage compared with their counterparts at unionized and non-unionized U.S. plants.

CAW economist Jim Stanford said higher productivity here translates to the equivalent of a $5-an-hour edge over unionized assembly operations in the U.S. and $16 at non-union plants south of the border.

"Overall, it costs less to assemble a vehicle in terms of labour expenses in a CAW plant than it does at a non-unionized transplant in the U.S.," said Stanford, who is also a strategist for the national union.

The CAW's position contrasts sharply with the view of some industry watchers that labour costs at GM and Chrysler here are $15 to $25 an hour higher than non-unionized foreign-based producers in the U.S.

Those figures do not include the productivity factor.

The U.S. government wants the United Auto Workers members to take big pay cuts at GM and Chrysler in the U.S. before the automakers qualify for up to $17.4 billion in financial aid so they are more competitive with their Japanese-based rivals.

The two Detroit-based automakers are also asking for reductions in CAW members' wages and benefits that would make plants more competitive here so they can get up to $4 billion in loans from the federal and Ontario governments.

CAW president Ken Lewenza has said the union would be "part of any solution" to keep GM and Chrysler alive in Canada. But he also rejected reports about a large labour cost gap with other automakers.

He said in an interview that the automakers on both sides of the border have not identified "benchmark" wage and benefit rates from their competitors that they would use in negotiations for any concessions.

Union officials met with GM of Canada last week, but Lewenza said there was little talk about how much the company is seeking in concessions.

"We're just in a holding pattern right now," he said.

The two sides are waiting for a clearer indication from the U.S. government about what cost cuts it is seeking, including worker concessions, he said.

In his report on productivity, Stanford said average labour productivity is more than 11 per cent higher in Canadian plants compared with the U.S., and about 35 per cent better than operations in Mexico.

Unionized assembly plants in Canada are more productive than non-union operations, according to the report.

Stanford noted that high productivity has as much of an impact on competitiveness as hourly labour expenses and will provide an edge for Canada in the industry's restructuring.

"Part of our goal with this study is to remind decision makers and the public that cost competitiveness depends just as much on production as it does on wages," he said.

Meanwhile, TD Economics released another gloomy outlook for the North American auto industry. The bank predicted a 28-per-cent plunge in auto production this year, which will put more pressure on reeling suppliers.

Several analysts have forecast double-digit declines in sales and output in North America in 2009, but few industry watchers have estimated declines that high.

TD economist Dina Cover noted that while General Motors and Chrysler will get billions of dollars in loans from governments on both sides of the border, "the risk of bankruptcy has far from been eliminated."

TD expects a modest recovery in sales in 2010, but business will remain at a "depressed level" of 11 million vehicles in North America, down from 15 million to 16 million annually in recent years. Cover also said Detroit-based automakers will shrink in Canada and that will mean fewer parts suppliers, too.

Canada Post plays Grinch in censorship row

Canada Post plays Grinch in censorship row
Jan 26, 2009 04:30 AM


Late last year, Canada Post and the Public Service Alliance of Canada became embroiled in a heated strike over sick-pay benefits. In the midst of the dispute, several PSAC members took direct aim at Canada Post CEO Moya Greene, recording a short parody video titled The Greench. The video, which was posted on YouTube, adapted the well-known Dr. Seuss tune You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch to criticize Greene and the company.

While the creation of a protest video is not particularly noteworthy, what followed soon after is. Just as the video began to attract some attention, YouTube removed it after receiving a complaint from Canada Post alleging the video violated the company's copyright.

The case highlights a common occurrence under United States law, which allows copyright owners to file complaints with Web hosts such as YouTube if they believe the site is hosting infringing content. Under the law, the Web host avoids liability if it immediately removes the content. No court or independent third party reviews the infringement claim since nothing more than a complaint that meets certain criteria is needed. The statutory requirements include providing a statement that the complainant has a "good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent or the law."

YouTube may simply have been following the law, but the decision caught The Greench creators by surprise since the song featured original lyrics based on an obvious parody of the Seuss character. Moreover, it was not the Dr. Seuss rights holders who filed the complaint, but rather Canada Post. When asked about the case, a Canada Post spokesperson stated the claim was based on the inclusion of a picture of the Grinch character with a discoloured headshot of Greene that appears for nine seconds in the video.

The strike may have concluded, but the reverberations from the video takedown have not, since Canada Post may have opened itself up to possible liability with its claims of copyright infringement. Last year, a California court ruled Universal Music could face liability for demanding the removal of a home video featuring a two-year-old dancing in their family's kitchen with the song Let's Go Crazy by Prince playing in the background. Stephanie Lenz, the mother of the two-year-old in the video, fought back by suing the music company for wrongly filing the takedown demand.

The court concluded copyright owners should consider whether the use of their work could qualify as "fair use" in order to meet the good faith belief standard. The same claim would seemingly be available to The Greench creators, since their brief use of the Greene photo would surely qualify as fair use under U.S. law.

Should The Greench creators pursue the case, a ruling against Canada Post might serve as a disincentive against the use of takedown notices that appear rooted in attempts to censor rather than enforce copyright. Indeed, the incident is not the first time a Canadian company has tried to use the U.S. notice-and-takedown system to quell online criticism. In 2007, Telus demanded that YouTube remove 23 videos, including several featuring original union songs. YouTube took down the videos, but a legal challenge to Telus' claim is currently before the courts in California.

As the cases wind their way through the legal system, they provide an important reminder about the dangers associated with the notice-and-takedown rule. Canada has yet to implement such an approach and the experience to date reinforces concerns that legally mandated removal of content from the Internet without court oversight opens the door to abusive practices that may have little to do with protecting the rights of copyright owners.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Coping with a traumatised nation

By Martin Patience 
BBC News, Kabul

Patient at Kabul mental hospital. Photos by Mahfouz Zubaide
Patients have just one dedicated mental health facility in the nation(Photos: Mahfouz Zubaide)
At a small, white-washed building on the outskirts of Kabul, a handful of doctors try to cope with one of Afghanistan's biggest problems.
Rugs hang from doorframes to keep out the bitter winter cold, and patients, along with their visiting families, crowd into the bare hospital wards.
According to studies cited by the Afghan health ministry an astonishing 66% of Afghans suffer mental health problems.
And yet this hospital is the only facility in the country dedicated to mental disorders - and there are just 40 beds.
The resident psychiatrist, Musadiq Nadimee, has a weary look as he paces up and down the building's corridors.
"This hospital is just for the complicated cases that are referred to us from across the country," he says with a resigned shrug.
One father has admitted his teenage daughter, Hamida, who suffers from schizophrenia. "She's got a lot better," he says, a smile breaking across his face.
'Vicious cycle'
But most experts agree that the mental health problems here go far deeper than the illnesses that are commonly found in almost all countries.
Dr Abdullah Fahim
 There's little trust between people. Sometimes cruel acts committed are seen as part of normal life for Afghans. If this continues then our future will be dark 
Dr Abdullah Fahim
Afghanistan is a traumatised nation. In 30 years, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have died and most of its people have witnessed horrendous violence at some point in their lives.
Many of the mental disorders are connected to these experiences, say health officials.
Local journalist Hanif Sherzad says that Afghans continue to be traumatised by their past and the continuing violence.
"Many people don't feel safe, they simply don't feel secure," he says.
"Even those people that have good physical health and are living in secure places are constantly hearing bad news. It affects them and the vicious cycle continues."
The Afghan health ministry readily admits that there simply are not enough facilities or doctors to even begin dealing with the most serious cases.
Other health issues - such as infant and maternal mortality - have taken priority.
But a senior adviser to the health minister, Dr Abdullah Fahim, worries that if the issue of mental health is not addressed immediately, it will continue to have a slow, corrosive effect on Afghan society.
"There's little trust between people," he says. "Sometimes cruel acts committed are seen as part of normal life for Afghans. If this continues then our future will be dark."
Mental health hospital in Kabul
The hospital close to Kabul has only 40 beds
Because of a lack of understanding, many Afghans suffering mental health problems are believed to be possessed.
Some are chained in rooms or even caves until it is believed that the "jinns" - evil spirits - have been exorcised.
But others are simply abandoned by their families because they can no longer cope or afford the medication that is required to treat their medical conditions.
A small number of mentally ill people are cared for by local charities.
At one such centre run by the Red Crescent Society, a group of women crowds round the director, Mohammed Zahaid.
Mr Zahaid says that one of the women refused to eat and drink for days. She was constantly crying and kept asking about former Afghan President Najibullah.
When the staff got the woman a picture of the ex-president she immediately perked up - and began eating and drinking again.
But she is one of the fortunate few.
In a country wracked by problems, mental health is an issue that is largely forgotten.

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