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Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: The truth and fallacies behind ‘local hires’

Ken Baerg
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: The truth and fallacies behind ‘local hires’

 

This is the first in a series of Industry Perspectives Op-Ed columns where Ken Baerg of Canada Works shares his views on British Columbia’s Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) framework. This article delves into the meaning behind the term ‘local hires’ as Baerg describes it.

 

There are a few words that have become political footballs in the ongoing public discourse around the provincial NDP’s so-called CBAs.

None more so than the words “benefit” – the “B” in CBAs  – and “local hire.”

When the NDP trotted out the CBA program in July 2018 they announced the “benefits” associated with this exclusive deal between the NDP and their political allies in the BC Building Trades Unions (BTU) would be indisputable.

High on their list of feel-good aspirational (i.e., non-obligatory) objectives: more opportunities for all manner of under-represented groups, including and especially local hires.

Their claim is simple. Local hires from within the region and the province would be summarily bypassed in favour of out-of-province workers and Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) if not for the requirements mandated through a project labour agreement with the BTU.

The Community Benefits Coalition of BC, what we believe to be a thinly veiled front for the BTU and their allies, has created tear-inducing YouTube videos for public consumption with verbiage that implies if it were not for the CBA structure (i.e. the NDP and their hand-picked unions) looking out for them, otherwise marginalized groups, including local workers, would simply be ignored and shut out of jobs.

When it comes to local hires, the evidence just doesn’t support this.

Consider the following points:

  • #1: Hiring locally always makes economic sense. Even if one started with the wrong-headed assumption that management’s interests are, by definition, counter to workers, crass economics always push employers to hire locals first. It’s simply common sense. Bringing in workers from other jurisdictions costs more for travel in and out of the closest city. Workers from out of town bring increased costs in food and accommodation and in daily travel arrangements. Any construction company will always hire as many local workers as possible simply because it is less expensive.
  • #2: Hiring locally always makes social sense. The vast majority of construction companies do in fact care about their standing and profile and are eager to acquire the social license within the communities where they work. Hiring local is not only economically prudent, it builds an important rapport and connection with the community and contractors know that is an important part of their success.
  • #3: Local hires are only “local” for a time. This is the nature of construction. Permanent employment in the construction sector necessitates a willingness to go where the work is. No single construction project goes on forever.
  • Upon completion of a project, a worker, armed with additional skills and experience, will begin a new job somewhere else. And if the logic of ‘local hire’ is expanded to the next project, workers that were local hires on the last job won’t be allowed to work on those other projects in other regions because they are no longer, well, local.
  • #4: The word local is at best a moving and ill-defined target. Local may refer to a community, a province or the nation, depending on the context and arguments of convenience. Or it may refer to a union local. Requiring members of under-represented groups like women, Indigenous people or apprentices to come from a specific town or a specific association – like a union – is silly. It simply creates more barriers to opportunity.

The evidence goes beyond mere logic.

Two significant industrial projects in our province serve as helpful cases in point.

The Kitimat Modernization Project (KMP), completed only a few years ago, was a private sector industrial project where Bechtel, the construction management company, entered into an exclusive project labour agreement with the BTU.

That is to say, only members of the traditional unions dispatched through their hiring halls could work at the KMP.

Mid-way through the project, with two-thirds of the anticipated peak crew employed, 75 per cent of the employees were from B.C. Compare and contrast that with Site C, a managed open site, where any contractor and any worker, regardless of union affiliation or lack thereof, is welcome.

The most recent stats show that 72 per cent of the employees are from B.C., a negligible difference. These two projects do, however, diverge on two very important fronts,

First, since the BTU represent only 15 per cent of the construction workers in B.C., 85 per cent of the construction workforce was left out under the KMP-BTU deal, whereas Site C welcomes all workers. Second, the KMP-BTU deal reported a staggering 190 TFWs mid-project, largely in mainstream trades, while the managed open site model at Site C has only has three international workers, with a workforce of over 3,500.

A cursory discussion on the issue of local hires would have people believe this is a polarizing issue that only the CBA-like model can effectively tackle, that industry would resist hiring locally while trade unions are needed to ensure local workers get opportunities they would not otherwise obtain.

This is simply not so.

This is a misunderstood topic that has been thrown about in debates and conversations with little appreciation for industry best practices and the economic pressures that always pushes local hires to the top of any hiring list – with or without the BTU as their alleged champion.

 

Part two of this series will be featured on Oct. 7 and will discuss “distraction by acronym” when it comes to CBAs.

Ken Baerg is the executive director of Canada Works, the Council of Progressive Canadian Unions.

Send comments and Industry Perspectives op-ed ideas to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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