News

Industry Voices Op-Ed: Who really benefits from B.C.’s public infrastructure rules?

Earlier this summer, the B.C. government laid out the rules for building billions of dollars-worth of public infrastructure across the province. Future projects are to be built using a framework that’s supposed to boost apprenticeships, promote local hiring and help youth and underrepresented groups get the first crack at good paying construction jobs. But anyone who’s taken a deep dive into the government’s so-called Community Benefits Agreement is probably asking: who is this truly designed to benefit?

The $1.4 billion Pattullo Bridge replacement project and four-lane expansion of Highway 1 between Kamloops and Alberta are the first big projects to be bound by the Horgan government’s new framework.

It sets up B.C. Infrastructure Benefits Inc., a new crown corporation in charge of hiring more youth, women and Indigenous people as well as setting a 25 per cent apprenticeship target.

The rationale seems reasonable. “British Columbians deserve the opportunity to work on major government projects being built in and near their communities,” says Claire Trevena, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. However, if that’s the real goal, the fine print is not very convincing.

Nowhere in the government’s 300-page plus document detailing the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) does the government set out clear targets and processes for hiring women, who currently make up just four percent of B.C.’s skilled construction workforce.

Nowhere is there a firm target for hiring Indigenous people, who account for roughly 3.8 per cent of the province’s construction workforce.

From a government that declares these to be priorities, there is only non-committal language about “prioritized opportunities for the participation of Indigenous peoples and other traditionally under-represented groups on government infrastructure projects.” But there is no clear requirement or commitment. No way to objectively measure success.

While the language is fuzzy around hiring priority groups, the CBA spells out in excruciating detail the benefits for Horgan’s preferred union buddies. Within 30 days of employment on the jobsite, any non-union worker or worker from another affiliation will be forced to join and pay dues to the Building Trades Unions.

The agreement also includes a long itemized list of construction camp and food essentials. Each clothes closet for example, must have a minimum depth of 24 inches. Bed pillows must be at least 12 by 24 inches. The morning menu has to include three types of chilled juices.

Even the dessert menu is dictated so that a dizzying daily assortment of pastries, cookies, cake, pie, ice cream and more are provided — all on the taxpayer’s dime. It’s no wonder that by the Horgan government’s own estimates the Pattullo Bridge replacement project is likely to exceed the original price tag by as much as $100 million.

Clearly the government is sparing no expense on a deal it keeps insisting will have benefits that far outweigh the costs. But benefits for whom? Not the taxpayer it seems.

A Mainstreet Research poll commissioned by PCA (Progressive Contractors Association of Canada) shows the vast majority of British Columbians (over 92 per cent) believe it’s important for the B.C. government to get good value on public infrastructure investments.

The majority of respondents are also not in favour of Project Labour Agreements, or Community Benefit Agreements, as they’re also called, if they drive up infrastructure costs. Governments at every level should be looking for ways to maximize public infrastructure dollars, not using CBAs as a façade to reward union supporters at taxpayers expense.

Questions about rising costs and a sweet heart deal have the B.C. government on the defensive, with the premier suggesting critics should not be so hasty. “So I think before we have too many people piling on about the consequences, we should get the tenders back and we should start these projects before we start criticizing them.”

With plans for billions of dollars in provincial projects from schools to hospitals set to fall under the B.C. government’s Community Benefits Agreement, it seems only reasonable to confirm who is getting the biggest benefit and at what cost, before going any further. Right now, it’s the government’s union friends that are further ahead than underrepresented groups will ever be.

Paul de Jong, is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. To comment or suggest an idea for an Industry Voices Op-Ed, please email
editor@journalofcommerce.com.

Top