September 16, 2020

RESTORING B.C.’s economy to pre-COVID-19 strength will depend heavily on the construction industry, and the health of construction workers.

“This pandemic demonstrates the frailty of our economy when worker health and safety is compromised – workers drive the economy,” said BC Building Trades executive director Andrew Mercier.

B.C. received international attention for managing the COVID-19 outbreak, but the measures taken to slow the spread of infection also had a major economic impact. More than 130,000 B.C. workers lost their jobs, at least temporarily, due to quarantine restrictions.

The province created an economic recovery task force of labour, business and First Nations leaders to chart B.C.’s strategy for economic recovery.

B.C. declared construction an essential service during the provincial public health emergency ― a move that some criticized. Most projects kept building, even though some needed to scale back operations for health and safety reasons.

Physical distancing, hand-washing and other measures protected construction workers during the outbreak, but also exposed a huge problem with sanitation on construction sites that were only dealt with by swift action from WorkSafeBC, after complaints from unions and the Building Trades.

“We have seen in the non-union residential sector there is a rampant problem. We need to prioritize safety. This is an industry where a lot of people will put up with substandard safety practices, because they want to get the job done, and they don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to cause problems.”

BCBT has called for a public inquiry into sanitation in the construction industry.

The scale of the problem became obvious after Mercier appealed for construction workers — union and non-union — to notify BCBT of unsafe conditions. The complaints that came back were disproportionately from the non-union sector.

“We received complaints from across the board, but a lot of our union shops, because you have the union there, they are able to deal with the issues that come up in a pretty effective way. There is just a lack of worker voice in the non-union sites. There was a striking, acute difference.”

Some of the situations demonstrated a clear risk to worker safety and apparent indifference to worker safety. “One example was the high-rise where a worker sent me a picture of their hand-washing station. It was a hose duct-taped to a two-by-four with a bar of soap sitting next to it. That was the contractor’s attempt to comply with the need for hand-washing stations.”

In addition to recommending an inquiry, BCBT’s submission to the Economic Recovery Task Force urges the use of Community Benefits Agreements on public infrastructure projects in order to gain maximum value on investment.

“It is striking that CBAs allow the public to recapture the value of those investments in trades training and access to the Building Trades training system as well as with apprenticeship opportunities,” explained Mercier.

“We need to look at what the value is to the surrounding community. This is about labour market development. This is about competitiveness and being in a better economic situation going into the future.”

Labour Minister Harry Bains said he is “especially pleased” with Community Benefits Agreements. They mean that taxpayer dollars are going to projects this province needs, and CBAs are being considered for every major public infrastructure project in this province.

“CBAs mean local workers supporting local projects and improving local economies. Things that benefit the whole community. CBAs also increase opportunities for Indigenous Peoples, women and other underrepresented groups who want to start a career in the trades,” Bains said.

The damage COVID-19 inflicted on the province makes the hiring of underrepresented groups such as First Nations, women and local workers even more important, Mercier said. COVID-19 eliminated so many women’s jobs that some are calling the economic downturn a “she-cession.”

Bains added that construction will be key in the effort to revive the economy.

“The construction industry is incredibly important to B.C.’s economy, and that is why government has taken the steps to make sure this sector could continue to operate safely during the pandemic,” Bains said. “No worker should be in an unsafe environment that could be hazardous to their health while on the job.”

By David Hogben