B.C.’s “CBA” stands out for all the wrong reasons

Click here for the original post, which appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist.

It’s a dubious distinction. A prominent Canadian think tank has just completed a major study of Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) across the country, and they have come to a troubling, but not so surprising conclusion: that the B.C. government’s labour framework for building public infrastructure projects, doesn’t look anything like a real CBA. With more eyebrows raised about the ethics and implications of such a façade, the bigger question now is, how much longer can it go on?

This is not how any government wants to stand out. The most in-depth analysis to date on Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) in jurisdictions right across the country suggests that B.C. has become the poster child of everything a CBA should not be: ill-defined, expensive, and exclusionary. The report, “Community Benefits Agreements: Toward a Fair, Open and Inclusive Framework” by the prominent Canadian think tank, Cardus, finds that while CBAs across Canada have serious flaws, nowhere is this more plainly clear than in B.C.

Increasingly, governments are looking to Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) to leave communities better off when big infrastructure projects are built. At least, that’s supposed to be the objective. The challenge, according to Cardus, is that governments have been in such a rush to implement CBAs, that this haphazard approach has resulted in CBA models with substantial shortcomings including weak accountability and measurement as well as a lack of transparency and openness in the procurement process. These are issues that must be addressed, according to Cardus, if CBAs are ever going to achieve their potential. The challenge is much bigger in B.C., where an emerging theme in the Cardus report, is abuse of the CBA concept.

The report notes that the Horgan government uses community benefits type language to mask a pattern of exclusion. With so many key aspects of a traditional CBA absent from the B.C. model, Cardus wonders whether a Community Benefits Agreement is the right term for what’s been imposed in B.C. “Indeed, a strong case can be made that it is actually a massive restrictive project labour agreement that gives preference to some parties to the exclusion of others.” This is more than a reasonable deduction given that major public projects are being funnelled to Horgan government supporters in the Building Trades Unions, who make up just 15 percent of the province’s construction workforce. The other 85 percent of workers who choose not to affiliate with the Building Trades and have their benefits suspended, don’t get to build important public projects that their tax dollars help fund. It’s that simple, and that unfair.

It’s no wonder, so many in B.C.’s construction industry denounced the Horgan government’s regressive labour framework from the get-go. By all accounts, the B.C. model fails to pass the most basic litmus test for transparency, measurability and inclusiveness. It was devised in secret with only select industry participants and policed by non-disclosure agreements. The government set no targets for hiring and training more women and Indigenous people, which was supposedly a priority. The B.C. model also imposes workers from select Building Trades Unions on contractors, displacing their own crews and quashing any innovation that comes from competing labour models. This has made contractors – union, alternative union and non-union – increasingly reluctant to bid on projects. For example, the Trans-Canada Highway widening at Kicking Horse Canyon (phase one) attracted only four bidders. A project of this scope would ordinarily attract 15 to 20 bidders. When there are fewer bidders, public costs rise. So far, projects built under B.C.’s regressive labour regime are approximately $400 million over budget and counting. It’s hardly a responsible approach for a government that’s running a record deficit. 

The excellent report from Cardus objectively compels governments across the country to think more carefully before implementing CBAs, by making sure they’re fair, open and inclusive. Unfortunately, it’s a little late for that in British Columbia, where the best move now is a hard stop. Declaring an end to its restrictive and exclusionary “CBA” regime would allow the province to work with, not against, a construction industry that has a huge role to play in rebuilding B.C.’s economy.

Paul de Jong is President of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA)

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