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Comment: B.C. needs a real community benefits plan

At issue is a business owned by a Cowichan First Nation member who has had trouble getting a contract to work on the new hospital.
ArtistÂ’s rendering of the new Cowichan District Hospital. Via Island Health

A commentary by the works and economics program director at Cardus, a public policy think tank.

The B.C. government might as well just accept that its so-called Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) model is so badly broken, it needs to be scrapped and completely rebuilt.

It took a recent controversy in the Cowichan First Nation to expose the serious, fundamental problems with the CBA. The program has not only failed to meet its stated objectives, but that the objectives themselves are fundamentally misaligned against the public interest.

At issue is a business owned by a member of the Cowichan First Nation who was initially awarded a contract to work on the Cowichan District Hospital Replacement Project only to have his permits cancelled.

Why? Because the provincial government imposed a CBA that restricted work on the project to workers affiliated with particular labour unions. This rightly led to outrage and demand for reforms to the government’s policy.

As Cardus research has demonstrated, the concept behind CBAs is good. They are supposed to leverage government spending on public infrastructure projects to obtain additional benefits to the community, such as increased employment and skills training, especially for members of under-represented or historically-disadvantaged groups.

Unfortunately, as we can see in the Cowichan case, the B.C. CBA is doing the exact opposite. That’s because B.C.’s so-called CBA isn’t really a CBA at all. It is what is better known as a project labour agreement (PLA), a collective bargaining agreement that specifies the labour arrangements for a construction project with the goal of resolving labour disputes and avoiding strikes or lockouts.

The problem is that the B.C. government under then-premier John Horgan imposed a PLA on all provincial infrastructure projects in a way that shuts out many workers in our economy.

Under the policy, only members of those labour unions that are chosen by the provincial government get access to work under these government contracts.

Members of labour unions that are not chosen — or workers who are not unionized at all — are simply left out.

This is what has happened in the situation in the Cowichan First Nation. The First Nations-owned business did not meet the provincial government’s arbitrary requirements because its workforce was not organized by one of the government’s chosen unions.

And yet First Nations-owned businesses are precisely the kind of businesses that CBAs are supposed to promote.

This runs contrary to Premier David Eby’s stated goal of making the B.C. economy more inclusive. As a result, the government had to back down and, while the details remain to be seen, the government says it will provide an exemption from the CBA to this particular business.

But this exemption merely proves the fundamental flaw in the government’s program.

The Cowichan situation has received a significant amount of attention from the media and politicians. This is appropriate, because it is one of the most egregious cases of how the program’s objectives are out of step with the public interest.

But similar situations exist across the province where some workers are shut out of government procurement simply because of what union they belong to, or because they don’t belong to one at all.

The B.C. government should take this opportunity to craft a new policy on CBAs. There are better, more inclusive ways of growing and training the construction workforce.

Cardus’s framework ensures that CBAs achieve employment and training opportunities for equity-seeking groups in a way that is fair and unbiased.

This starts with ensuring that governments’ procurement processes are neutral with respect to union affiliation and eliminating anything in a CBA that prevents certain workers from projects based on union status. Contract bidding must be fair, open, and competitive.

A truly effective CBA model in B.C. would also establishing clear policy goals in support of desired social and community benefits at the front end. And at the back end, it would elevate success measurement to accurately account for project results.

Without systemic reform, situations like the one in Cowichan will continue to arise.

Rather than providing exemptions in every future instance of injustice, the government should simply acknowledge the broader problem that this case has highlighted, fix it, and ensure that all B.C. construction workers can participate in B.C. construction projects.

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