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Journal of Commerce | Paul de Jong | February 12, 2019
Industry Voices Op-Ed columns reflect the opinion of the author and not that of ConstructConnect’s Journal of Commerce, the company, its other associated publications or its staff.
At this month’s BUILDEX conference in Vancouver leading experts are showcasing the latest innovations in architecture, interior design and construction.
The building industry is coming together to share collective experiences about what works and what doesn’t. In B.C., there’s no question which category the John Horgan government’s so-called Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) falls into. It’s become the glaring example of “how not” to build public projects.
One of the featured panel discussions at this year’s conference pits the open and fair policies and practices of progressive contractors against the restrictive and closed shop approach of the BC Building Trades Unions.
They’re going toe-to-toe in what no doubt will be a heated debate over the B.C. government’s chosen framework for building billions of dollars in public infrastructure. In my view, granting the Building Trades Unions (BTUs) a monopoly on taxpayer-funded projects in B.C. is not only bad optics, it sets a new low for public policy.
B.C.’s CBA doesn’t pass even the most basic litmus test for good public policy. For starters, there were no broad or open consultations. This cynical, covert deal designed to benefit the BTUs was carried out in the backrooms.
The fix was in and the dirty deed done long before the government pretended to consult, making it impossible to carry out any discussions in good faith with associations representing alternative union and non-union contractors.
Once the “sham” consultations were complete, it was no surprise when the government made it official. Any workers hired to build public projects will have to join the BTUs, even though they constitute a meagre 15 per cent of B.C.’s construction workforce. So much for fairness, freedom of association and respecting workers’ basic rights.
Also central to any good public policy are metrics by which to measure success and make improvements. B.C.’s arcane rules for building public infrastructure include no clear targets for hiring and training women or Indigenous people, which is where the focus should be.
Instead, the agreement goes into painstaking detail about the adequate number of pillows as well as desert selections for Horgan’s BTU friends.
While there is a 25 per cent apprenticeship target, it may not be realistic. Several BTU projects haven’t come close to achieving that target including the Waneta Dam, Brilliant Dam Expansion and Kitimat Modernization Project.
It’s worth noting that member companies with the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada along with their labour partner CLAC, already regularly achieve 30 per cent to 40 per cent apprentice ratios on their jobsites.
The reality is that Horgan’s claims of inclusion, fairness and training is shaping up to be nothing more than hyperbole. The end result will be fewer trained apprentices at a time when the province will need to hire the tens of thousands of workers to complete critical infrastructure projects.
Good public policy should be designed to serve and protect the public interest, which the Horgan government’s infrastructure rules clearly do not. This cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to building key infrastructure in B.C. doesn’t allow contractors to choose their crews. It stifles innovation and productivity, ultimately sticking taxpayers with much higher project costs.
By the government’s own admission, the Pattullo Bridge replacement project, the first to roll out under the new infrastructure rules, will cost as much as $100 million more than original estimates. That’s even with the scope of the project reduced, which means the public winds up paying more and getting less.
Think of how better that $100 million could be spent, for example on low income housing, health care facilities or schools.
CBAs or Project Labour Agreements (PLAs), as they’re often called, can benefit communities by giving local workers and underrepresented groups the first shot at jobs and training.
When designed openly, and transparently, they can succeed. However, that’s not what B.C.’s restricted PLA is about. From the get-go, it was tailor-made for the sole purpose of rewarding Horgan’s BTU pals, not leaving communities better off or providing good public value.
B.C.’s restricted PLA fails miserably on every count. The BTUs can keep trying to dress it up and pretend otherwise, but it’s most likely that anyone who takes the time to listen to the BUILDEX panel debate, won’t be fooled.
Paul de Jong is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. Send Industry Voices comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.