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Cardus report examines ‘use and abuse’ of CBAs

Angela Gismondi
Cardus report examines ‘use and abuse’ of CBAs

Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) can achieve social and economic benefits for everyone involved in construction projects but will only be effective if governments implement a fair, open, transparent and inclusive framework across Canada, states think-tank Cardus.

The report, Community Benefits Agreements: Toward a Fair, Open, and Inclusive Framework for Canada, examines “the use and abuse” of CBAs across the country.

Brian Dijkema, vice-president of external affairs at Cardus, said the purpose of the research is to examine CBAs, what is working and not working, and to provide measurable returns to make it better for the industry as a whole.

“The clearest thing we want to do is step back for a second and look at what these things are intended to do,” he explained.

They are intended to use the financial capital that is going into public infrastructure procurement to achieve a social policy end, usually around employment and usually around some sort of under-represented population, he added.

“These are things that have very good intentions but what’s interesting is the way in which they are being adopted differently in different places,” Dijkema said. “What we wanted to do with this report is to take a moment and consider these things so that when we approach community benefits agreements we do it well and in a way that helps the industry and actually achieve some of those policy goals.

“That’s the impetus behind the project, to drive continuous improvement of something that has gained momentum and has the potential to be a positive development for the industry but only if it’s done well and has the potential to be bad if it’s done poorly,” he added.


Six ways to improve CBAs

The report recommends six ways to make CBAs better with a framework that includes:

  • Genuine, broad consultation with government, developers, community, labour, and industry;
  • standardized, fair, open and transparent procurement processes;
  • measurable goals that will help determine CBA success or failure;
  • clear, achievable targets for things like job training and hiring;
  • longer term community benefits that last beyond the construction of any project; and
  • inclusivity that respects all human rights, labour models and union affiliations.

One of the key concerns is whether or not the CBA actually achieves its goals.

“By not taking the time to ensure that CBAs are effective, governments may not be achieving their goals and it could actually reduce diversity in the labour market. It could drive up the cost of construction by 15 per cent and fail to deliver for the people CBAs are supposed to help,” Dijkema noted.

Paul de Jong, president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), said current CBA models in Canada have flaws in terms of transparency, measurability and exclusion which must be addressed.

He used the example of the CBA framework in B.C. which he says excludes 85 per cent of B.C.’s construction workforce by granting a monopoly to a select group of favoured building trades unions.

“It serves as a shining example of what can go terribly wrong if there is minimal to zero consultation, what can go wrong when the fundamental rights of freedom of choice of workers is quashed, what can go wrong when employers are not enabled and given opportunity to innovate and be flexible in terms of how they construct their employee management structures,” asserted de Jong.



Next step focuses on consultation

Over the next few months Cardus will be consulting with all stakeholders.

“Our hope is to not only have those conversations and publish those responses but also to convene some industry stakeholder groups to have the conversation, so we end up with a series of practices that are tangible and can be used by major construction purchasers to do this in a way that actually achieves the goal along with the principles that we’ve outlined in the framework of the paper,” said Dijkema.

De Jong said he hopes the report will stimulate discussion on CBAs so the government better understands the pitfalls and construction stakeholders will get better outcomes.

“There are a bunch of questions that the Cardus paper raises,” he said. “They are not saying that community benefits agreements are categorically wrong or bad. Our understanding is they are simply saying this is an approach that requires more study, more conversation, more analysis. We should pause as an industry together with government to do this critical work before these things are implemented widely across the landscape. We’re hopeful that this report encourages discussion among policy-makers and key legitimate stakeholders.

”Every stakeholder agrees on one fundamental thing, he added.

“We have to grow the construction workforce and we have to do it in a way that draws in individuals who previously have not been represented well in construction: Indigenous people, women, youth. We all know and we all need to do this better.”


Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.

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