What if public infrastructure projects built in B.C. came with more than just the bridge, tunnel, dam or highway listed on the construction blueprint?
What if they came with significant benefits to your community?
They can — and they can help us address the looming skilled trades shortage at the same time.
Over the next three years, the province of B.C. will invest $15.8 billion in taxpayer-funded infrastructure, supporting thousands of jobs during construction. These projects have the potential to set the bar high in terms of benefits to the communities they serve.
This isn't a new concept. Community Benefits Agreements — formal agreements between governments and contractors — have been used with success throughout North America for more than two decades. In fact, Toronto City Council approved a CBA last month for its Woodbine Racetrack.
Under a CBA framework, both union and non-union contractors can build public projects with community benefits. These agreements can ensure that workers are paid fairly, and that opportunities exist for qualified local workers, apprentices, women in trades and Indigenous workers.
It is best when public infrastructure projects are open to all contractors — union or non-union.
CBAs can literally change the economic landscape for the better by gifting communities with a legacy of skills, training, employability and local investment.
Critics of CBAs have had to go all the way to Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec for examples of costly infrastructure projects completed under government labour agreements. They say that they increase costs and infringe on workers' rights.
Here in B.C., we can find those kinds of examples with projects that are built in the absence of CBAs:
- The B.C. portion of the Evergreen line was budgeted at $410 million; final cost to us was $586 million, representing a 43 per cent increase.
- South Fraser Perimeter Road was budgeted at $635 million; final cost to us was $899 million, representing a 42 per cent increase.
- Vancouver Convention Centre was budgeted at $495 million; final cost to us was $841 million, representing a whopping 70 per cent increase.
- Port Mann Bridge was budgeted at $2.3398 billion; final cost to us was $3.3 billion, representing a 41 per cent increase.
The above projects were built under the construction model celebrated by groups like the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada and the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association. Does this model really demonstrate fairness and value to taxpayers? Simple arithmetic tells us no.
We can do better.
It is best when public infrastructure projects are open to all contractors — union or non-union — and provide benefits to communities in the form of fair wages, safe working conditions, skills training, employability and local investment.
With their wage predictability and known hiring provisions, Community Benefits Agreements are good for B.C., but they are not good for unscrupulous low-bid contractors who refuse to be held to account and instead drive up project costs prior to completion.
Tom Sigurdson is executive director of the BC Building Trades Council.