Back in the summer of 2018, B.C.’s John Horgan government announced a “landmark” agreement for key public infrastructure projects. The premier claimed this new framework would deliver all kinds of benefits for the province’s skilled tradespeople. Now, four years later, it seems reasonable to ask, what benefits?
On a hot summer’s day, Horgan summoned the media to roll out his unique version of a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). He pledged a long list of benefits, from better training and apprenticeships to more opportunities in the trades for women, Indigenous people and youth across the province when major public projects are built.
For a government that made such a big deal about what its so-called CBA would deliver, it has been conspicuously quiet on how B.C. workers, families and communities have benefitted. Year after year, there’s silence on what’s actually been accomplished. Results. What results?
This is no surprise to many of us in the construction industry, who recognized a terrible piece of public policy from the get-go. There were no clear targets set for hiring and training underrepresented groups. No targets, no measurement, no accountability. British Columbians aren’t supposed to know if they’re getting good value on their infrastructure investments, because by all accounts, they’re not.
We do know that projects built using public tax dollars under B.C.’s so-called CBA are costing a lot more than they should. The government appears to have given up on reporting on key projects, but early estimates are that key projects are millions of dollars over budget. These cost overruns rise as more public construction work falls under this regressive labour framework.
The main reason for the staggering cost overruns is the government’s restrictive hiring rules, which discourage many highly-qualified contractors – unionized, alternatively unionized and non-union – from bidding on projects.
For example, the Trans-Canada Highway widening at Kicking Horse Canyon (phase one) 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. The fewer the bids, the higher the cost.
From B.C. construction associations to business groups, companies and unions, there has been an industry wide outcry over the government’s restrictive CBA framework that strips workers of their basic constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of association. Years later, nothing has changed.
Only workers affiliated with the government’s favoured Building Trades Unions (BTU) are allowed to build key public projects.
Although the BTUs constitute just 15 per cent of the province’s construction workforce, they get to build all new big infrastructure projects under the so-called CBA. That means 85 per cent of the province’s construction workers are shut out of major taxpayer funded projects, unless they agree to join and pay dues to the BTUs.
This model is so blatantly unfair that an independent think-tank has suggested that the B.C. government has abused the CBA concept.
In the most in-depth analysis to date on Community Benefits Agreements in jurisdictions across the country, the independent think-tank Cardus found while CBAs in Canada have serious flaws, nowhere is this more plainly clear than in B.C.
With so many key aspects of a traditional CBA absent from the B.C. model, Cardus questions whether a CBA is the right term for what’s been imposed in B.C.
“Indeed, a strong case can be made that it is actually a massive restrictive project labour agreement that gives preference to some parties to the exclusion of others.”
If B.C.’s version of a CBA has truly left communities and its taxpayers better off during construction of major public projects, it’s about time the Horgan government came clean and proved it.
Paul de Jong is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. Send Industry Perspectives comment and column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.