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B.C.’s Community Benefits deal nothing to brag about

The NDP government is trumpeting its Community Benefit Agreements - but it's only fair to ask: who's really benefiting, who's being excluded - and why?
B.C. Premier John Horgan

An upcoming conference on B.C.’s so-called Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is likely to raise more questions than answers about the Horgan government’s new framework for building public infrastructure. No doubt, attendees will proclaim this as a model whose time has come.

Just as predictably, the NDP government is bound to trumpet its leadership in promoting progressive hiring and training practices on major provincial projects.

But before another round of self-congratulations, it’s time for a reality check.

First, let’s be clear. Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs), when designed openly and transparently, can provide training and job opportunities for potential workers who might not otherwise get the chance. Construction companies are very familiar with the concept. Whether they’re known as CBAs, Project Labour Agreements (PLAs) or local hiring and training campaigns, companies have been putting them into practise for decades.

However, the Horgan government’s much-ballyhooed CBA framework for infrastructure is an entirely different animal, that isn’t right or fair. Here’s why:

Rather than expanding work and training opportunities for underrepresented groups and apprentices, this framework is little more than a cynical back-room deal by the NDP government aimed at rewarding Building Trades Unions (BTUs) for their ongoing support.

In return, Horgan’s BTU buddies have been granted a monopoly on billions of dollars in public infrastructure projects. This will ultimately drive up costs for B.C. taxpayers. By the government’s own estimates, the Pattullo Bridge replacement project, the first to be rolled out under the CBA, is likely to exceed the original price tag by as much as $100 million.

And that’s just for starters.

Despite the high-flying rhetoric of inclusion, fairness and training, the Horgan government’s CBA framework contains far more details about buffet arrangements for its BTU friends, than specifics for putting the underemployed and apprentices to work. In fact, there are no clear targets for hiring women or Indigenous people.

So much for expanding the pool of workers for crucial infrastructure projects that B.C.’s future depends on.

And what about training? While the agreement does set a 25% apprenticeship target, that certainly has not been the reality for the Building Trades Unions. On both their Waneta Dam and Brilliant Dam Expansion projects, just 15 and 10% of the project workforce was comprised of apprentices. The apprentice ratio was just 16% on the Kitimat Modernization Project, another project delivered exclusively by the BTUs.

The claim that a Horgan-style CBA will increase construction worker training is also a stretch, especially when the agreement intentionally excludes two of B.C.’s top three apprentice-sponsoring groups.

The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) ranks first in terms of the number of apprentices sponsored and trained, and the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) is number three.

So when two provincial leaders in job training and sponsorships are sidelined, how does that help more workers get trained?

It’s worth noting that member companies with the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) along with their labour partner CLAC, regularly achieve 30% to 40% apprentice ratios on their jobsites. In truth, Horgan’s restrictive CBAs will result in fewer trained apprentices at a time when the province should be doing all it can to tackle the skilled trades shortage, which will only get worse.

Another shaky claim: CBAs are needed so that workers aren’t exploited and paid minimum wages. The fact is that no one is making minimum wage on public infrastructure projects. These are jobs that require workers with significant skills. The reality is that average hourly wages for construction workers have been increasing since 2013, according to Statistics Canada.

This has happened without the NDP’s so-called CBA framework.

No, the main focus of Horgan’s CBA is not to benefit communities. The goal is to reward his BTU friends.

Why else would all workers be required to join select Building Trades Unions in order to work on government projects? It makes no sense given that BTU workers constitute a meagre 15% of B.C.’s construction workforce.

Forced unionization for the remaining 85% of workers, who have chosen not to affiliate with the BTUs – is coercive, cynical, and tramples on workers’ basic right to freedom of association under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Horgan government should be doing all it can to ensure that the rules for building public projects are working in the broader public interest. That means scrapping its current CBA fiasco and going back to the drawing board.

Until the province proposes a model that’s fair, open and transparent, it has nothing to brag about.

Paul de Jong, President of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA)