Community Benefits Agreements: Are they the scourge some would have us believe?

I recently attended a one-day conference hosted by the BC Building Trades on Community Benefit Agreements. Before it began, this event was criticized by Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA) president Chris Gardner in a Vancouver Sun Op-Ed.  His criticisms were rife with opinions and assumptions with little or no evidence to support them.

This CBA does have its issues

I agree there are problems with the program as it now stands. Some conference attendees rightly stood and questioned the lack of consultation. I asked if the new crown agency created to oversee the CBA – BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc. (BCIB) – had any open-shop employers on its board and the answer was revealed to be ‘no.’

So how should MCABC address this issue? I have appealed to Green Party leader Andrew Weaver to attempt to lead the government down a different path.  I believe there is merit in the goals of the Community Benefits Program but I think it’s possible to achieve those benefits through a vetting program applicable to contractors who bid and are awarded designated government work.

Governance bodies already exist

Existing government agencies like Industry Training Authority (ITA) and WorksafeBC could determine whether contractors meet specified requirements. The ITA, which currently registers all apprentices, could ensure enough individuals from under-represented groups are hired. WorksafeBC, which has payroll data, could ensure workers get paid designated wages. Government could require all qualifying contractors to provide a statutory declaration that they meet required community benefits criteria and participants would be subjected to audits.

Abuses could be identified through whistle-blower complaint procedures and compliance officers could be given the authority to enforce the rules. In this way, no new bureaucracy would be required and tradespeople would not be obliged to affiliate or change affiliations with labour unions. Surely it is not the business of government to organize labour.

The BC government argues some measures are necessary to ensure that more women and indigenous persons are encouraged to enter the trades, that workers are local, that decent wages and benefits are provided, and that apprentices have the opportunity to finish their training. In my opinion, all of these laudable objectives are achievable without the union-sanctioned and -run BCIB.

Politics always seem to get in the way

However, the government won’t likely consider policy changes while under constant political attack. Instead, it will probably do what governments under siege usually do – hunker down and defend its flawed policy decisions. And unfortunately, the construction industry can’t seem to agree how it would best be helped and remains segmented in silos of frustration. So, the discontent persists while the politicians make decisions that favour their narrow band of supporters, then leverage that support into financial contributions leading up to the next election.

Community Benefit Agreements might have real value in restoring to construction a well-trained labour force, leading wages, and badly needed new skilled workers. However, CBAs have become political footballs kicked around and castigated until they are dismantled by the next round of political victors.

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