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Paul de Jong: B.C.’s community benefits deals nothing to brag about

This Op-Ed was originally published in the Vancouver Sun. You can find the full post here.

An upcoming conference on B.C.’s so-called Community Benefits Agreements is likely to raise more questions than answers about the Horgan government’s new framework for building public infrastructure.

No doubt, attendees will proclaim this as a model whose time has come. Just as, predictably, the NDP government is bound to trumpet its leadership in promoting progressive hiring and training practices on major provincial projects. But before another round of self-congratulations, it’s time for a reality check.

First, let’s be clear. Community Benefits Agreements, when designed openly and transparently, can provide training and job opportunities for potential workers who might not otherwise get the chance.

Construction companies are very familiar with the concept. Whether they’re known as CBAs, Project Labour Agreements or local hiring and training campaigns, companies have been putting them into practice for decades. However, the Horgan government’s much-ballyhooed CBA framework for infrastructure is an entirely different animal that isn’t right or fair. Here’s why:

Rather than expanding work and training opportunities for under-represented groups and apprentices, this framework is little more than a cynical backroom deal by the NDP government aimed at rewarding building trades unions for their ongoing support. In return, Horgan’s labour union buddies have been granted a monopoly on billions of dollars of public infrastructure projects. This will ultimately drive up costs for B.C. taxpayers. By the government’s own estimates, the Pattullo Bridge replacement project, the first to be rolled out under the CBA, is likely to exceed the original price tag by as much as $100 million. And that’s just for starters.

Premier John Horgan announces a Community Benefits Agreement during a press conference outside the ironworkers training facility at BCIT in Burnaby in July 2018.
Premier John Horgan announces a Community Benefits Agreement during a press conference outside the ironworkers training facility at BCIT in Burnaby in July 2018. RICHARD LAM / PNG FILES

Despite the high-flying rhetoric of inclusion, fairness and training, the Horgan government’s CBA framework contains far more details about buffet arrangements for its friends in the building trades union than specifics for putting the underemployed and apprentices to work. In fact, there are no clear targets for hiring women or Indigenous people. So much for expanding the pool of workers for crucial infrastructure projects that B.C.’s future depends on.

And what about training? While the agreement does set a 25-per-cent apprenticeship target, that certainly has not been the reality for the building trades unions. On both their Waneta Dam and Brilliant Dam expansion projects, just 15 and 10 per cent of the project workforce were apprentices. The apprentice ratio was just 16 per cent on the Kitimat modernization project, another project delivered exclusively by the building trades unions. It’s worth noting that member companies with the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, along with their labour partner CLAC, regularly achieve 30 per cent to 40 per cent apprentice ratios on their job sites. In truth, Horgan’s restrictive CBA will result in fewer trained apprentices.

No, the main focus of Horgan’s CBA is not to benefit communities. The goal is to reward his union friends. Why else would all workers be required to join select building trades unions in order to work on government projects? It makes no sense given that building trades union workers constitute a meagre 15 per cent of B.C.’s construction workforce. Forced unionization for the remaining 85 per cent of workers who have chosen not to affiliate with the building trades unions is coercive, cynical and tramples on workers’ basic right to freedom of association under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Horgan government should be doing all it can to ensure that the rules for building public projects are working in the broader public interest. That means scrapping its current CBA fiasco and going back to the drawing board. Until the provincial government proposes a model that’s fair, open and transparent, it has nothing to brag about.

Paul de Jong is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.

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