BURNABY (NEWS 1130) – The B.C. government has created a new Crown Corporation to handle hiring and paying construction workers for provincial infrastructure projects in a move that’s being lauded by unions, but criticized by independent contractors.
Premier John Horgan announced Monday the province has signed a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), which will make it a priority to hire people who live within close proximity to a construction project, Indigenous people and women, while paying union-level wages and having space for training and apprenticeships.
“Community Benefits Agreements ensure that projects will be on time, on budget, fair wages are paid to everyone and importantly that legacy of new workers for the future are part and parcel of the deal,” Horgan said following a tour of the BCIT Ironworkers Training Facility in Burnaby.
The BC Infrastructure Inc. (BCIB), has been created to oversee the CBA and to work with unions to hire labourers and manage things like payroll and benefits.
The new rules will apply to work on a new Pattullo Bridge, and the lane-widening projects on the Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and the Alberta border, according to Horgan. Transportation Minster Claire Trevena says British Columbians deserve to work on major projects that are happening in their own communities.
The BC Building Trades (BCBT) applauds the province’s decision, calling it a “good day for B.C. workers, families and communities.”
“Certain sectors of our province have been ignored for far too long,” BCBT director Tom Sigurdson said in a release. “Under a Community Benefits Agreement, these groups will have the opportunity to contribute and invest in their communities while essentially building B.C.”
The new format will prevent temporary foreign workers from taking positions which could have the possibility of being filled by a local, the organization said.
However, independent contractors fear a new Crown Corporation will increase bureaucracy, slow project and inflate the cost of projects for companies and taxpayers.
“What we’re concerned about is escalating costs and project delays,” said Chris Gardner with the BC Independent Contractors and Business Association. “We saw the same model used in the 1990s, the Island Highway Model. It didn’t work then, it’s not going to work now.”
As Horgan talks about a critical labour shortage in the construction sector, Gardener worries his non-unionized workers, which he says make up a majority of construction workers in the province, will miss out on job opportunities due to this new model.
“The government can’t take $1.4 billion for the Pattullo Bridge and siphon it off and only say only these 15 per cent of companies are going to have an opportunity to bid,” he said.
The province expects the agreement to add an additional $5 million to the more than $2 billion being spent on the Pattulo Bridge and Trans-Canada expansion projects, according to Trevena.
“The cost of making sure that we’re training the next generation of workers is one I think British Columbians understand,” Horgan said. “I don’t see any significant increase in costs beyond those that you would expect on billions of dollars worth of investment.”
“We’re in support of community benefits.We think any time a local community can benefit from infrastructure projects is fantastic,” said Rieghardt van Enter with the Progressive Contractors Association “What we’re concerned about is some of the details mentioned where there’s going to be a separate crown corporation that’s going to be employing the labour force. Any time you add a new twist into the construction process, you add the risk of either injury to safety and also cost overruns.”
Both groups expressed concern about not being consulted before the changes were made.
“Nobody has a chance to work on those agreements or talk about it. It was really a behind closed doors thing and it kind of gives you the sense that there’s some backroom deals happening here,” van Enter said.
B.C.’s official opposition party isn’t keen on the announcement either, and calls it a “political payoff at the taxpayer’s expense.”
The Liberals say that the NDP is clawing back freedoms in the construction industry, forcing workers into a union membership they may not want.
“We’ve seen how the NDP has managed project labour agreements in the past–costs of the project go up, and taxpayers are ultimately on the hook,” says Jas Johal, BC Liberal Jobs Critic and MLA for Richmond-Queensborough in a release. “If history is any indication, this move will provide yet another example of the NDP not being very good at spending British Columbians’ hard-earned money.”
Liberal Labour Critic and MLA for Chilliwack, John Martin, is echoing Gardner’s statement.
“Excluding qualified companies from bidding on government contracts is unfair, causes needless delays, and inflates costs,” he says.
“British Columbians deserve better than this, for projects they care about and are paying for. A deal that is a payoff for past donations to the NDP is simply wrong. We need to see the best price, not payoffs.”