News

1. COVID and schools

School buses are seen in the parking lot of a hockey arena in Dartmouth on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford

“The Nova Scotia Department of Education confirms an increasing number of children in early elementary school (Primary to Grade 4) are struggling to meet expectations when it comes to reading,” reports Jennifer Henderson:

This is not the fault of students or teachers or families. It’s almost to be expected considering the school time children have missed over the past two years. COVID restrictions and school closures have moved learning online to their homes three separate times. 

Going back to March 2020, when school disruptions began, the Halifax Examiner asked for information about the reading progress (or lack of it) made by children in early Elementary. 

The department responded by providing report card data from Halifax, the largest school region with 34,000 students in Primary-Grade 4. Report cards use words such as “developing as expected” and “needs more support” to tell students and parents how they are progressing and if they are meeting certain benchmarks. 

Over the past three school years, the Halifax region has seen a 5.5% decline in the number of students whose reading is “developing as expected” and a corresponding 5.5% increase in the number of kids who “need more support.” 

There is also a 5% decline in the number of students in Grades 1-2 meeting expectations when it comes to writing and a 5% increase in those who need more help. 

Click here to read “Early elementary school students are struggling to meet reading benchmarks.”

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2. Cognizant

Cognizant’s original corporate headquarters in Chennai, India, now an offshore delivery center. Photo: Wikipedia

As I say, much of my work is re-writing the same story over and over again. This time around, I’m prompted by the province’s announcement on Tuesday that by giving a gazillion dollars in tax breaks to a big international firm, there will be a ton of jobs! jobs! jobs! in Nova Scotia, and we’re all going to be rich forever, amen:

Global technology services company Cognizant has chosen Nova Scotia for its expansion plans, helping to advance the Province’s goals of attracting new economic opportunities, increasing the population and helping Nova Scotians access better paying jobs.

Cognizant chose us! [insert blushing fiancee emoji here] Take that, some random and not-as-attractive city in Wisconsin!

Over the next seven years, up to 1,250 new jobs are anticipated from two payroll rebate agreements approved by the Province for Cognizant, one of the world’s leading technology and professional services companies.

Cognizant will establish a new global technology and service delivery centre in Halifax, where it will employ a range of technology professionals and business process outsourcing employees.

During the term of the agreements, the company could spend an estimated $327 million in combined salaries and benefits – the highest amount through payroll rebate agreements with one company in more than a decade. The Province would collect income and consumption taxes from that payroll spending and could return a maximum rebate of about $27 million to Cognizant. The company will be eligible for a smaller amount if it creates fewer than 1,250 jobs.

These deals rarely meet their targets, hence the “smaller amount” of tax breaks written into the agreement.

But even if they do, there are still two sets of objections to them. First, the tax subsidies establish a baseline for demands for future subsidies, with the company forever coming back to government demanding ever more concessions, tax breaks, special deals, etc. See: Northern Pulp and Michelin.

And they create an international race to the bottom, with various jurisdictions vying against each other to offer ever-lower tax breaks, ever-increasing subsidies. The end result is, well, the world we have, in which companies dictate to governments how they will operate, rather than the other way around.

The business press is full of stories of this or that city “losing out” on a bid to attract Borg, Incorporated because the enticements couldn’t measure up to another city’s enticements, but has there ever been even one case of a city (or province) rejecting a company’s proposal because the demands were too onerous? Would we even know?

I’m quite aware that many people reading this right now can’t even imagine “rejecting jobs,” and so we have the hilarious send-up of the attitude in Don’t Look Up: “Your dad and I are for the jobs the comet will provide” — no cost is too high for jobs.

(Now go re-read my 2013 Coast article “Two decades of world-class delusion” to see why this is all wrong.)

But besides that, what about the jobs? Who’s getting them? The deal was couched specifically within Premier Tim Houston’s goal of increasing the population of Nova Scotia, so will all the jobs go to immigrants and students? If so, good for them, but what about the rest of us?

Yes, any economic activity has secondary effects and benefits to contractors, which is why some caterers and AV people were agog over the new convention centre (how’s that going, eh?), but all this means nothing if we’re not talking about the distribution of wealth across the community, i.e., inequality.

If the GDP of Nova Scotia goes up by eleventy billion dollars because Cognizant comes to town, undoubtedly a handful of people will benefit more than if the company hadn’t. But what about the average person, or those most down on their luck? A growing economy makes prices overall higher, and if lots of people aren’t seeing an increase in their pay, we’re worse off collectively, not better off.

Those handful of people who benefit from these deals always couch them in positive terms — the subsidies are worth it, think of the jobs! — so therefore we must decrease the tax-collecting ability of the government (that’s what a tax rebate does), such that there’s less money available for education, housing, poor relief, and the like.

But forget all that theoretical stuff: let’s talk about the work involved in the jobs themselves.

Cognizant doesn’t have a great reputation. Scratch that: Cognizant has a horrible reputation. Consider the Wikipedia page devoted to the company, which has an entire section labelled “Criticism and controversies,” with subheads on Bribery, Companies Act violations, Discrimination, Layoffs, and Tax evasion. (The details are far worse than the headlines.)

Cognizant doesn’t say exactly what it will be doing in Halifax beyond creating “a new global technology and service delivery centre.” The company has a lot of tentacles in a lot of different services, but one of them is as a contractor running Facebook moderation centres. Reporter Casey Newton wrote about one such centre in The Verge (tw: the article describes a lot of very disturbing material posted to Facebook) headlined “The Trauma Floor“:

Collectively, the employees described a workplace that is perpetually teetering on the brink of chaos. It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions. It’s a place where employees can be fired for making just a few errors a week — and where those who remain live in fear of the former colleagues who return seeking vengeance.

It’s a place where, in stark contrast to the perks lavished on Facebook employees, team leaders micromanage content moderators’ every bathroom and prayer break; where employees, desperate for a dopamine rush amid the misery, have been found having sex inside stairwells and a room reserved for lactating mothers; where people develop severe anxiety while still in training, and continue to struggle with trauma symptoms long after they leave; and where the counseling that Cognizant offers them ends the moment they quit — or are simply let go.

A content moderator named Miguel arrives for the day shift just before it begins, at 7 a.m. He’s one of about 300 workers who will eventually filter into the workplace, which occupies two floors in a Phoenix office park.

Security personnel keep watch over the entrance, on the lookout for disgruntled ex-employees and Facebook users who might confront moderators over removed posts. Miguel badges in to the office and heads to the lockers. There are barely enough lockers to go around, so some employees have taken to keeping items in them overnight to ensure they will have one the next day.

Miguel is allowed two 15-minute breaks, and one 30-minute lunch. During breaks, he often finds long lines for the restrooms. Hundreds of employees share just one urinal and two stalls in the men’s room, and three stalls in the women’s. Cognizant eventually allowed employees to use a restroom on another floor, but getting there and back will take Miguel precious minutes. By the time he has used the restroom and fought the crowd to his locker, he might have five minutes to look at his phone before returning to his desk.

Miguel is also allotted nine minutes per day of “wellness time,” which he is supposed to use if he feels traumatized and needs to step away from his desk. Several moderators told me that they routinely used their wellness time to go to the restroom when lines were shorter. But management eventually realized what they were doing, and ordered employees not to use wellness time to relieve themselves.

Newton reports at length on the psychological effects of being a Facebook moderator, and maybe that won’t be the function of Cognizant’s Halifax operation, but even so, Newton’s article describes a company so focused on profits over the well-being of its employees, that it should cause all of us to pause: is this really the sort of hell we want to subject our fellow citizens to?

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3. Common plan

A horse at Halifax Lancers in 2018. — Photo: Zane Woodford

“Concerns about a lack of recent public consultation gave councillors pause, but weren’t enough for them to recommend a stop to the Halifax Common Master Plan,” reports Zane Woodford:

The plan is a proposed redesign of the Halifax Common, removing some baseball diamonds and adding features like trees, seating, and a trellis. It envisions concerts on the Common, using the oval area, and includes the new pool approved last year. Stretching south, there are some landscaping and pathway changes to the block around the Wanderers Grounds, to the Camp Hill Cemetery, and Victoria Park.

At a virtual meeting of council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee on Thursday, councillors debated the plan for the second time. In December, the committee voted to defer a vote because of concerns from the Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers, located in what the plan calls the Wanderers Block, between Summer Street and Bell Road…

The staff report accompanying the plan said “the Wanderers Block should be the subject of a more detailed plan to consider various redevelopment opportunities,” and staff said that means there will be further consultation on the details.

Angie Holt, executive director and head coach, told the committee on Thursday the Lancers still aren’t satisfied.

“It is not the lack of detail that we are concerned with. We understand further detailed planning is needed,” Holt said. “It’s the details as presented that we have a problem with because they appear to be to the detriment of our organization and they also take away any possibility for growth of Lancers as we have been discussing with city staff for the past four years.”

Click here to read “Committee recommends adoption of Halifax Common plan despite calls for more consultation.”

Concerts on the Common, eh? What could possibly go wrong?

I’m not in the “never change a thing about the Common!” camp, but the obsession with concerts has ruined several opportunities.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

To begin with, for whatever reason, it was decided (by Peter Bigelow, somehow) that a concert stage should be built adjacent to the North Park/Cogswell roundabout. This meant that the Oval was shifted from its originally planned site running parallel to Robie Street, over to its current location parallel to Cogswell Street, so the power plant for the ice could double as the power plant for the concert stage. As a result, skaters now face a stiff tail wind coming off Citadel Hill.

I still refer to the giant green boxes east of the Oval (between the Oval and the prospective concert stage) as The Harold MacKay Memorial Power Plant, because why not?

Besides that, because there’s a vision of a hundred thousand people standing cheek-by-jowl on the Common yelling “woo-woo” and pumping their fists up to Kid Rock, an incipient plan to daylight Freshwater Brook through the Common was deep-sixed.

Even at this late date, however, I still have a fantasy of the creek being brought above ground from its Common springhead at Griffin’s Pond (now insultingly recreated by the iron-gated fountain), through the Summer Street parking garage monstrosity, to the Public Gardens (where some of it pops up even now), down that lovely swale in Holy Cross Cemetery, skirting Fenwick Tower, across the Queen Street Sobeys parking lot, right down the middle of Victoria Road, then under a rebuilt Kissing Bridge on Barrington Street, and finally gushing into the harbour, or at least into the Peninsula Place parking garage.

OK, sure, the Sobeys might have some objection to this plan, but imagine at least a little stretch of creek running across the Common, with maybe some shade trees along the bank, a bit of respite from the noise and grit of the city. But no, we can’t even have that because of bureaucrats’ obsession with Kid Rock.

Incidentally, Kid Rock is an asshole, but it was precisely his assholiness that ultimately caused the illegal concert loan scheme to explode into scandal:

The documents don’t spell out the day-to-day details of the negotiations with Kid Rock, but it appears that MacKay kept Kid Rock on the bill by dribbling advance money to him a little at a time, as he could convince Anstey to lend more money.

Eventually, Kid Rock refused to play the game, and demanded all the upfront fee. On June 23, the redacted person, more than likely MacKay, wrote to TCL’s controller, cc’ing [Halifax CAO Wayne] Anstey and [Trade Centre Limited president Scott] Ferguson, asking for an additional $600,000 loan, but not to pay Kid Rock. “That [redacted] will cover refunds when we cancel (Very Confidentially next week) the Kid Rock night. It is our plan to offer KR holders to use their ticket for BEP which should mean a lot less refunds.”

The next day the same person writes back, alarmed. “The Agency handling Kid Rock artists has been telling all our other artists’ agents about their situation and the demand for further fee payments from our artists is escalating. PLEASE let me know when we could access funds.”

Increasingly, my past reporting serves as historic context for my present reporting. This means two things: I’m old, and I need to find a new schtick.

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4. COVID and deaths

Eleven Nova Scotians have died from COVID in the last week. That’s not as high as the 15/week who were dying in Northwood during the first wave of the pandemic, but it’s obviously a terrible loss of a lot of people, and nearly two years in and with a high rate of vaccination, such high death rates are dispiriting, to put it mildly.

Worse, while I have no knowledge of the medical condition of those now in hospital, based solely on the number of cases and the assumption that death numbers lag case numbers by on average about three weeks, I don’t expect the number of deaths to decrease much (if at all) over the next three weeks. We’re in for a long, depressing haul.

I only say this to prepare you for what looks to me like the inevitable bad news coming.

I’ll have more to say about all this in today’s weekly recap, which will come out later this afternoon.

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Government

City

Committee of the Whole (Friday, 10am) — virtual meeting

Province

No meetings


On campus

Dalhousie

“’Corruption of the Air:’ Disease and Climate Change in the Rise of English Caribbean Slavery” (Friday, 3:30pm) — Justin Roberts will talk via Teams

King’s

10th Annual Conference of the Early Modern (Friday and Saturday) — online conference of students’ work, with keynote lecture by Roberta Barker; more info here


In the harbour

Halifax
07:00: Tropic Lissette, container ship,moves from Pier 42 to Pier 33
08:30: ZIM Shekou, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Valencia, Spain
10:30: Tamesis, car carrier, arrives at Pier 31 from Le Havre, France
14:00: Algoma Integrity, bulker, sails from Gold Bond for sea
17:00: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, arrives at Fairview Cove from Saint-Pierre
18:00: Asterix, replenishment vessel, sails from Bedford Basin for sea
18:00: Aurviken, oil tanker, arrives at Pier 9 from Point Tupper
20:30: ZIM Shekou sails for New York
21:00: Tamesis moves to Autoport

Cape Breton
07:45: Aurviken, oil tanker, sails from Point Tupper for Halifax
18:00: Algoma Victory, bulker, arrives at Aulds Cove quarry from Rio Haina, Dominican Republic


Footnotes

It’s a short Morning File, but believe it or not, a lot of work went into it. I’m going for a run before returning to the depressing COVID news.

Speak among yourselves.


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Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Thanks for your investigation of Cognizant. Excellent– and with the bad reputation it already has — things in Hfx could go south anytime.