Rieghardt van Enter: British Columbians want big infrastructure done right

This article originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun on April 11, 2018*


British Columbia has some big public infrastructure projects coming up — the Pattullo Bridge replacement, new transit lines, potentially a replacement for the Massey Tunnel. They will require billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars to build, and have the potential to help move the province forward and benefit all of us.

They are important public undertakings, and defining moments for the provincial government.

New B.C. Premier John Horgan has stated it’s not enough to just build the infrastructure, but that it has to be done in a way that achieves social good. He recently stated:

“We want to make sure when we build public infrastructure, we’re not just getting that piece of roadway, that piece of bridge, that hospital, that school, we’re also making sure that we’re training the next generation of workers. We’re making sure that there are women, Indigenous people, and other marginal groups participating in that construction project so that their families can benefit from public investments.”

The Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) shares that view.

However, we are concerned the B.C. NDP may go down the road of restricting the work to a select group of craft unions through a restrictive Project Labour Agreement (PLA), which would actually work against those goals.

PLAs are arrangements where companies and labour groups agree to provide the necessary workers to get a job done over the life of a project, assuring essential skilled labour and setting terms on things like wages and working conditions.

They can be open, where all qualified companies and workers have an opportunity to bid on the work, or they can be restricted so only select unions are able to do the work.

B.C.’s Building Trades Unions, representing just 17 per cent of construction workers in the province, have already been lobbying hard for a monopoly on upcoming infrastructure projects through restrictive PLAs.

Restrictive PLA’s limit the number of companies that can bid on provincial work, which drives up cost to the taxpayer. A strong body of research demonstrates that restricting bidders also inflates costs — typically as much as 20-30 per cent.

British Columbians saw this in the ’90s when B.C.’s last NDP government used restrictive PLA’s for the troubled Island Highway Project, which resulted in massive cost overruns and delays.

We recently partnered with Mainstreet Research to poll British Columbians on this. The poll clearly found British Columbians don’t support giving one group of workers a monopoly on the work on big, taxpayer-funded projects, especially when that lack of competition drives up a project’s costs.

The poll found 92.4 per cent of British Columbians believe all it is important the B.C. Government gets good value for investment in public infrastructure. More than three-quarters of decided respondents don’t support restricting who can work on projects. What British Columbians do favour is an open and inclusive approach to bidding on big public projects.

Our association is no stranger to open and fair PLAs — and done right they can work. In fact, our members have had a long and successful track record of working with them in building many of Canada’s key energy and infrastructure projects over the past quarter century. Our members are also key innovators in training and employing under-represented worker groups such as First Nations members and women.   

Project Labour Agreements work best when they are open, providing all qualified companies and workers — regardless of the labour model they might choose to employ — the opportunity to bid for contracts.

Today’s British Columbia is far different from the 1990s, when PLAs were last mandated on public projects in the province. Today’s B.C. workforce is competent and diverse. In fact, we’d argue this diversity, energy and creativity has made B.C.’s construction sector a leader in Canada and around the world.

And the best could be yet to come. But only if our government looks forward in its labour policies and not backwards. Fairness and social responsibility mean allowing all British Columbian workers and contractors to share in the benefits this province’s major and much-needed infrastructure investments can bring.

Rieghardt van Enter is the Progressive Contractors Association Regional Director for British Columbia.