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Journal of Commerce | Paul de Jong | December 30, 2019
The Horgan government rolled out its so-called Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in the summer of 2018, touting it as a labour deal that would deliver big benefits to B.C. workers, families and communities when major public infrastructure projects are built. Since then, this suspect arrangement has accomplished little more than wrack up staggering project costs, and raise the ire of B.C.’s construction industry. As many reflect on the year that’s gone by and consider resolutions for the year ahead, there’s one that immediately comes to mind for the B.C. government.
Few pieces of public policy have been so badly in need of a redo as the Horgan government’s CBA. Not just a refresh, or revise, but a complete overhaul. From the get-go this labour deal couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. That’s because it was never designed to benefit communities. It was devised in the backrooms as payoff to the government’s cronies in the Building Trades Unions (BTUs). Given its misguided purpose, its not surprising that this policy has floundered on so many fronts.
For starters, this labour deal is so regressive, that B.C.’s Supreme Court agrees that leading construction associations, including the Progressive Contractors Association (PCA), business groups, companies and unions have legitimate grounds to challenge its constitutionality. In early February, the court will hear how Horgan’s restrictive CBA robs workers of their basic rights, including freedom of association. All workers must join certain select Building Trades Unions, even though 85 per cent of B.C.’s construction workers have chosen not to belong to these unions. Why should they have their pensions and benefits suspended and have to pay dues to unions of the government’s choice, in order to work on public projects?
There’s also nothing fair to taxpayers about the spiraling public costs of the government’s fake CBA. It will add an additional $100 million alone to the cost of the Pattullo Bridge replacement project. That was the first project announced under this ill-fated labour scheme. The second project is the four-laning of the Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and Alberta. Widening just a small section of that highway will cost $22 million more than original estimates. This misuse of millions of hard-earned public tax dollars robs other projects like hospitals, transit and schools of badly needed funding, for no good reason.
The Horgan government has tried, but failed to rationalize and legitimize its brand of CBA. It created a whole new bureaucracy, BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc., to handle hiring for public projects. Yet, the government set no clear targets for hiring and training more women and Indigenous people, which was supposedly a priority. While the government did set a 25 percent apprenticeship target, there’s no need for a costly new crown corporation in order to achieve that. Member companies with the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) along with their labour partner CLAC, regularly reach 30 per cent to 40 per cent apprentice ratios on their jobsites. Rather than support current efforts to provide more people with valuable skills training, the end result will be the opposite: fewer trained apprentices at a time when the province will need to hire tens of thousands of workers to complete critical infrastructure projects.
More government red tape is also driving away many highly qualified companies. Contractors who can no longer control work design or pick their work crews are reluctant to bid on government projects. The first phase of the Trans Canada Highway widening at Kicking Horse, for example, attracted only four bidders. A project of this scope would ordinarily attract 15 to 20 bidders. The initial estimate for this work was $62.9 million, yet the lowest bid came in at $85.2 million. When there are fewer bidders for projects, public costs rise, and that’s just what we’re seeing.
Efforts to ease contractors’ concerns have backfired. BCIB has held several information sessions for companies, but failed to provide needed details about hiring and training from local communities or explain who is responsible for safety and training. The sessions wound up raising even more questions and concerns, with many frustrated contractors describing this exercise as a total fiasco.
The vast majority of B.C.’s construction industry has denounced Horgan’s version of a CBA, for good reason. It fails to treat all workers fairly or provide taxpayers with good value on infrastructure investments. As many consider their New Year’s resolutions, there’s no better time for the Horgan government to put the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” into practice by scrapping its CBA and starting over.
Paul de Jong is President of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA). Send comments and Industry Perspectives Op-ed ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.