With governments across Canada considering investments in infrastructure as a way to stimulate the economy, one critical piece that must not and cannot be overlooked is the important role that infrastructure will have directly on Canadians.
We cannot afford to undercut efforts to better the lives of Canadians, especially since it is critically important to our post-pandemic recovery.
If Canada is to move forward from this crisis, and to build an even stronger and better Canada than before, we must ensure that infrastructure projects benefit all Canadians — from marginalized groups to the local communities where the projects take place.
This can only be achieved by adopting a community benefits framework that prioritizes local hiring, good wages, safe working conditions, the training of apprentices and the active participation of women, Indigenous peoples and other underrepresented groups.
It cannot be achieved by fast-tracking and cutting corners or by loosening restrictions that provide for these benefits, and more, that guarantee projects are built with the best interests of Canadians in mind. It just makes sense that Canadians should actually benefit directly from the work done in their communities.
And yet, some self-interested groups seem eager to want to loosen these requirements, and to forego the positive impact that these projects have on the livelihoods of Canadians, including those that struggle the most to find meaningful work and training in the skilled trades. If provincial and federal governments are seeking to fast-track infrastructure investments to stimulate the economy, we encourage them to move quickly, but it cannot be at the expense of community benefits.
Community benefits ensure workers can be trained and gain the apprenticeship experience they need to prosper and lead successful careers in their trade. This is critical for the future growth of Canada’s construction industry. With increasing demand for highly skilled, qualified tradespeople across the country, Canada should be taking every step necessary to attract and retain workers in the trades. This includes identifying barriers that exist for many underrepresented groups to enter and complete a skilled trades apprenticeship. The fact of the matter is that community benefits will achieve this goal.
By hiring locally, it means investments in infrastructure stay in the community, support the local economy and revitalize local job creation. Investments made in training local workers and paying fair wages translate into benefits for their families and long-term benefits for communities desperately in need of lasting economic growth and development.
Workers benefit with a legacy of experience, skills training and employability as a result of the standards set through community benefits.
Good employers rise up to these standards. They understand the value that such benefits bring to themselves, to the project, to their workers and to the country. This value is also seen in the savings that project developers gain with projects that are built with a community benefits framework.
In fact, it is more likely that projects without such a framework will suffer from cost overruns and struggle with environmental, social and labour-related problems. Ensuring projects meet and exceed the expectations placed upon them at approval reinforces the public trust that the project is beneficial and worth doing.
Projects that include Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) do not exclude or prohibit any contractor, union or non-union from bidding on or performing the work, contrary to what some opponents claim; they only require that the work is performed under conditions that promote equality, fairness, good wages, high standards of safety and the training of workers — local and underrepresented.
If non-union contractors were to bid on and win a contract under a CBA, they and their workers would have to abide by language contained in the tender in order to meet the CBA requirements, as well as pay standards and benefits under the agreement for the work. Once the work is completed, they are under no obligation to continue to follow those rules on other projects; there is no risk to open-shop contractors losing employees to the unionized sector. Canadians have been able to benefit from the use of CBAs because our tradespeople are highly skilled, trained and numerous.
It is important to ensure that safety, quality, investments in training and apprenticeships, and positive impacts in the local community are the standard. We understand the critical role local communities must have in participating and shaping projects in their communities. Investing in Canadians guarantees infrastructure projects get built the right way.
Communities are stronger when they are able to participate directly in the economy and contribute to the well-being of their local suppliers and services. An investment in infrastructure that supports tradespeople and communities must be the direction Canada takes as we move forward to restore the economy.
Robert Kucheran is chairman of Canada’s Building Trades Unions. Send comments and Industry Perspectives op-ed ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.