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Site C Is Shortchanging BC Workers and Apprentices, Say Unions

Megaproject a missed opportunity to address skills shortage, critics argue.

Zoë Ducklow 4 Apr

Zoë Ducklow is an independent journalist and photographer covering current affairs. Find her on Twitter here.

The largest public works project in B.C.’s history — the Site C dam — is providing a much smaller share of the jobs to British Columbians than previous BC Hydro projects.

And despite promises the $10.7-billion megaproject would provide a training ground for a new generation of trades workers, the number of apprentices hired is a fraction of the target agreed to by industry, government and unions.

It’s a missed opportunity to train needed workers, say unions.

This month about 3,000 workers are on the job at Site C, with the number set to increase as construction moves forward.

Typically, based on past projects, about 2,910 of them should be British Columbians.

But on the Site C site, less than 2,400 of the workers come from within the province.

In the past BC Hydro usually worked with the Allied Hydro Council, an umbrella group of labour unions. The first AHC collective agreement was signed in 1961 under premier W.A.C. Bennett, with a simple premise — BC Hydro would provide work and the union council would provide skilled labour and guarantee no strikes. The agreement, updated in 2013, also guarantees that work on the projects goes to union members.

Allied Hydro Council representative Brad Bastien said the approach has helped deliver many projects on time and under budget, while ensuring local work and high apprenticeship numbers.

Under this approach, Bastien said, an average of 97 per cent of workers on the covered projects were British Columbians. At Site C, BC Hydro reports that B.C. workers have had 79 per cent of the jobs since construction began in 2015.

That’s because Site C, announced by the former BC Liberal government in 2010, isn’t covered by a master agreement with the council. The work is covered by a number of separate contracts, and it’s an open site with no overall project labour agreement.

If the union council had served as the labour clearinghouse, Bastien says, it would have placed a premium on supplying skilled labour and apprentices. Instead, contractors are scrambling to find workers wherever they can, he says. “Not necessarily skilled labour, not necessarily apprentices.”

In the first four years of construction, apprentices have never made up more than 4.5 per cent of the workforce. The NDP government’s new Community Benefit Agreements for major public sector projects requires at least 25 per cent of the workforce be apprentices.

Bastien blames the failure on too many contractors striving to get the job done as cheaply as possible, with little oversight.

“That doesn’t always lead to the best labour. And I don’t want to criticize people that are on site, because everybody works hard. But it puts people in positions where they probably don’t have the experience or training.”

And that can create quality and safety problems, he says. Before moving to the Allied Hydro Council in January, Bastien was a senior staffer for 17 years at MoveUP, BC Hydro’s union. He was — and remains — aware of any accidents or injuries.

The accident rate is higher than it should be at Site C, he charges. There is no data to confirm Bastien’s allegation.

Not all trades have apprenticeship training, including many of the trades working at Site C so far.

Still, apprentices are technically required on all public projects, according to government policy. But the policy doesn’t specify how many.

Tom Sigurdson is head of the BC Building Trades, an umbrella group of construction unions. He says the Site C project is giving so few apprentices a chance to learn because most contracts include nothing beyond “aspirations” for the percentage of apprentices on the job.

“So, it really is up to the contractors who want to provide the opportunity for young people to pick up the skills of the trade to make those hours available,” Sigurdson says. “But it hasn’t happened.”

When the NDP government committed to completing Site C in December 2017, it pledged to increase the number of apprentices, install an oversight board to give “new management direction,” and move away from the BC Liberals’ open-site model back to union worksites.

It has established a Project Advisory Board, although it has released little information on its work. Who makes up the board and what do they do? Strangely secretive, it’s a combination of mostly unnamed BC Hydro senior staff, government staff and some independent experts.

But a spokesperson for the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources could not point to a significant increase in apprenticeships. The spokesperson noted that one contractor, the AFDE Partnership that won the $1.6-billion contract to build the generating station and spillways, “has also committed to providing opportunities for apprentices that includes a goal of up to 25 per cent apprenticeships.” However, the words “up to” leave a mile of wriggle room.

In fact, one year into the work, the three unions on the AFDE contract are reporting only 40 apprentices.

The Tyee contacted five unions with representation at Site C. Only two, the Christian Labour Association of Canada and the Construction Maintenance and Allied Workers, confirmed having apprentices.

At the same time, B.C. is facing a shortage of 14,600 skilled labourers by 2021, according to a report by BuildForce Canada, a labour market research organization run by the construction industry.

Combined demand from several simultaneous projects — Site C, the Coastal GasLink pipeline, Highway 1 improvements, Pattullo Bridge replacement, LNG Canada and more — and high retirement numbers will leave B.C. infrastructure projects scrambling for workers.

Brian Cochrane is business manager of the Operating Engineers, a union that represents a lot of heavy equipment operators in B.C., including on the Site C AFDE contract.

“There’s a skills shortage, and everybody within industry needs to have, how do I say this nicely — we can’t pay lip service to this anymore. It’s something we all need to be pulling together on,” he says.

Apprenticeships are always needed to develop a workforce, especially when demand for skilled workers is increasing. But with contracts that are soft on requirements, there is no promise B.C. will get there.

The Christian Labour Association of Canada, representing workers covered by the main Site C $1.75-billion construction contract, was criticized for having low apprenticeship numbers in the early years of the project.

CLAC representatives say the numbers have been low because most of the work has been heavy equipment operating, which isn’t an apprenticed trade. There is a certificate for heavy equipment operators — rock truck drivers and the like — but it’s not required by industry and the certification rate is low.

CLAC training manager Larry Richardson says the challenging site, with steep grades and difficult soil conditions, isn’t suitable for apprentices.

“The BC Building Trades, now that they’re doing the spillway, they understand. They tend not to bring up Site C anymore with regards to apprenticeships, because they’re having the same issue,” he says. “It’s not the environment you want to put a new guy into.”

As work on the dam progresses, more apprenticeships are expected.

In the meantime, CLAC has developed a pilot program to augment what training manager Larry Richardson says is an inadequate heavy equipment operation certification program.

“We have been pushing with government and the [Industry Training Authority of BC] to have changes to the program, and finally I annoyed them enough. Well basically, they said, what do you think is wrong with the program? One, I said it’s too expensive, two, industry doesn’t believe that the person who walks out with the certification has any qualification,” Richardson says. With the current level of training, he says, heavy equipment operators bring more problems than they solve.

In CLAC’s pilot program, participants complete 60 hours of online class work and then spend around 3,000 hours gaining experience at Site C. Then they’ll challenge the ITA equipment operator exam.

So far 30 workers have enrolled. When they finish in June, Richardson hopes the ITA will see value and adopt the model as the new training standard. Over time he hopes the industry will also value the certificate so operators will be valued for the skills they bring to new jobs.

Rod Bianchini, interim chief operating officer of ITA, said the CLAC training program is designed to meet labour needs at Site C and no decision has been made on whether it will be adopted more widely. The Industry Training Authority has scheduled a review of the heavy equipment operator training program for this year.

BC Building Trades is still limited in promoting employment of apprentices because there aren’t contractual requirements. That also makes it harder to bump up the number of British Columbians getting work.

“As for local B.C. hire, I think we still have a problem,” Sigurdson says. “This is still a publicly funded project, so that to me is another disappointment.”

But the NDP government had limited ability to make changes to the way the project was being run, as contracts were mostly awarded by the time it took over. One large contract remains to be awarded in mid-2020, and it will include a requirement to use workers represented by BC Building Trades-affiliated unions.

“The biggest problem with BC Hydro has been government involvement. They haven’t allowed BC Hydro to run the business the way BC Hydro wanted to run the business. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot of highly-skilled people who have been running that corporation for years and doing a good job at it,” Bastien says.

“I got to be honest, I wasn’t a huge Liberal supporter. What they did up there, could have been done a lot better. And they probably wouldn’t have the problems they’re having today.”  [Tyee]

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