At a time when statistics are showing Quebec construction workers have collectively never worked harder, the sector is taking a two-week break from work, which started July 24.
Over the past month the Commission de la construction du Quebec (CCQ) has sent out almost 182,000 vacation cheques to Quebec workers with more than $553 million distributed, a spike of 10 per cent over last year.
The hike from last year’s payout of $503 million results from the fact that the number of hours worked in the construction industry increased by 21 per cent over 2020, reaching 196.2 million hours. It’s the highest volume of construction activity ever, outpacing the peak of 177 million hours reached in 2019.
“The activity is very busy and everybody’s trying to do a lot of work, put in the hours,” said Eric Cote, CEO of the Quebec contractors association known as the Corporation des entrepreneurs generaux du Quebec.
“This break is needed for everyone, not only for the workers, but everyone” including the contractors and suppliers, Cote said.
In 1970, Quebec legislated an annual holiday for the construction industry that begins on the second-last Sunday of July and lasts for two weeks, and the measures are entrenched in collective agreements. Cote explained since workers do not necessarily work with the same employer, people were having a hard time getting paid including pension payments and vacation pay.
Now the system is centralized with employers making payments for sick leave, paid statutory holidays and vacations on a monthly basis to the CCQ. The cheques recently sent out represent a tremendous boost to the Quebec economy, Cote said, especially the tourism sector.
“That’s all money coming back into the economy,” he said. “They’ll pay for their holidays, and they’ll spend that money.”
About 80 per cent of the industry’s 190,000 workers and 26,500 employers will take the break.
Marie-Noelle Deblois, public affairs counsellor for the CCQ, noted agreements may be made between employers and employees for certain sites to keep working, such a maintenance, repairs, modifications, renovations or emergencies; and certain types of work set out in the civil engineering and roadwork sector.
“For the industry, this is a work organization measure to ensure the rhythm of work and the presence of workers at the right time on the sites,” said Deblois. “It is easier to plan a single period of downtime.”
“I’ve never heard anyone saying that we need to stop (the practice),” Cote said. “The management needs to stop. They need to take a break.”
There seems to be little inclination to adopt the model in Ontario. Ian Cunningham, president of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations, said he is not aware of any such discussions.
Giovanni Cautillo, president of the Ontario General Contractors Association, cited several reasons why a general construction holiday has never been contemplated in Ontario.
First, he said, the construction season is short in duration, especially for exterior work that has to be done. As well, the construction sector in Quebec is more heavily unionized, with the weight of the union movement backing the joint vacation plan.
And thirdly, Quebec social traditions often mirror parts of Europe such as France and Italy where much of the country takes a summer vacation at the same time.
“I do not see this tradition taking root in Ontario,” said Cautillo.
Cote said another reason for the break is that at this time of the year it’s hot and workers are already working at a slow pace, taking water breaks, and productivity has been shown to slow down.
“When you make mistakes, you can injure yourself. So a break is normal, and it’s necessary,” said Cote.
“With climate change, it’s not always a good period. We’re in 39 degrees today, no one wants to get out there.”
The stresses felt by everyone in the sector in 2022, including worker and supply shortages and hikes in inflation and interest rates, made for extra burdens on workers and contractors this year, Cote said.
This year the ICI sector in Quebec is celebrating because it has emerged from collective bargaining with no work stoppages.
Unlike in Ontario, he said, where there are 25 trades negotiating ICI deals every three years, all unionized ICI workers in Quebec negotiate one contract every four years, with different sections in the agreement pertinent to each trade.
There were strikes involving six different ICI trades in Ontario this spring, with some Quebec contractors working in Ontario perplexed at the multiple job interruptions, Cote said. In Quebec, there is either one strike in ICI or none, making for more predictability, he said.
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