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Industry Voices Op-Ed: British Columbia’s new rules for public project builds are wrong

Paul de Jong
Industry Voices Op-Ed: British Columbia’s new rules for public project builds are wrong

Premier John Horgan has just ushered in his “new way of doing business in British Columbia” which is really the old way.

No more freedom of association or the right to choose for workers. No sense of responsibility to provide good value to taxpayers.

When it comes to government-funded infrastructure, B.C.’s construction industry is now stuck in a time warp, saddled with 1990s-era rules that stifle competition, trample on workers’ basic rights and drive up costs for taxpayers.

Welcome to the new way of building public projects in B.C.

Paul de Jong
Paul de Jong

Billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded projects are going to be built using what the NDP government calls “Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs).”

The aim is to provide women, Indigenous people, youth and apprentices with more opportunities in construction. While the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) fully supports that goal, it’s the way the government is going about it that’s so wrong.

“The cost of making sure we’re training the next generation of workers is one, I think, British Columbians understand,” Horgan said.

Well, we don’t.

The question is why is the government creating a multi-million-dollar bureaucracy to accomplish what our members are already achieving?

PCA member companies are leaders in skills training and apprenticeships and have been for many years. They often far exceed the government’s new 25 per cent apprenticeship target with upwards of 30 and even 40 per cent of construction project crews comprised of apprentices. So it makes us wonder: if the provincial government is serious about creating opportunities for apprentices, why does its new community benefits framework exclude two of B.C.’s largest apprenticeship sponsors, CLAC and the ICBA?

This new framework was months in the making — the subject of backroom negotiations with the Building Trades Unions (BTUs). Major associations representing alternative union and non-union contractors had no opportunity to provide input. They were shut out of discussions, for obvious reasons.

The new CBA was designed to benefit the BTUs first and foremost. Starting with the new Pattullo Bridge and four-laning of the Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and Alberta, a new crown corporation, B.C. Infrastructure Benefits Inc., will be in charge of hiring construction workers for projects.

Signatories to this lopsided arrangement represent many of B.C.’s building trades, who today constitute a meagre 15 per cent of the province’s construction workforce.

The new rules for building future infrastructure projects in B.C. are such an affront to workers’ basic rights that details were not made public until some time after a government media conference.

Later the government released a statement that read: “Within 30 days of employment on the job site, any non-union worker or a worker from another affiliation will be required to join the union for work specific to the project.”

In no uncertain terms, this arcane rule infringes on freedom of association. It is forced unionization, a violation of workers’ most basic rights. The vast majority of B.C. construction workers (85 per cent) that have chosen for various reasons not to be associated with the BTUs are now forced to join and pay them dues in order to work on public infrastructure projects.

Is this really the 21st century? The same rules applied to the 1990s Island Highway project that racked up massive cost overruns. It was hardly the poster project of fairness for workers or good value for taxpayers, yet it seems this old model is being resurrected.

The B.C. government’s new bureaucratic and undemocratic approach to building public infrastructure shows zero respect for taxpayers. In a free market system where workers are allowed to choose which union to join, (or none) and where companies are involved in a safe, healthy, competitive environment, taxpayers get good value.

The new one-size-fits-all approach stifles innovation and productivity, leaving no room for any real competition. When that happens, there’s plenty of compelling research from the City of Montreal, Cardus, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Texas A&M, to show when construction choices are limited, costs rise.

Project costs can be inflated by anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent. That translates into millions, or perhaps even billions, in wasted B.C. tax dollars for no logical reason.

The B.C. government and BTUs should come clean with the public and admit this is really a blatant power grab by Horgan’s BTU buddies. When done transparently, and in good faith, CBAs can greatly benefit communities and underrepresented groups. But when they’re devised to reward and benefit a select few, workers and taxpayers in B.C. pay the price and so does the next generation of skilled workers. It’s about to get a crash course in ethics and how business should not be done.

Paul de Jong is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. Send Industry Voices comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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