When Big Infrastructure Projects Fail To Hire Local Labour, B.C. Loses
Natural Resources In north-eastern British Columbia, BC Hydro is building an $8.3-billion hydroelectric dam on the Peace River. The dam, known as the Site C Clean Energy Project, is a massive infrastructure investment for the province, but BC Hydro’s refusal to commit to using local and unionized labour on the project has created concern.
Investments of this magnitude not only improve infrastructure for British Columbians, they also provide a vital boost to the economy, putting large numbers of people to work and spreading stimulus all the way down the supply chain. But, when workers are hired from out of province or out of country, much of that benefit evaporates as money leaves the local economy.
BC Hydro currently claims between 60 and 75 percent of the workers on the Site C project are British Columbians. Labour groups are adamant, even if it were at the high end of that range, it’s nowhere near enough. “One-hundred percent B.C. workers is possible, and we shouldn’t settle for anything less,” says Brian Cochrane, Business Manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 115. “The 25 to 40 percent of jobs that are being filled by out of province workers could significantly help struggling skilled B.C. workers and their families. There are many highly trained skilled workers who are available for work. This was glaringly obvious as thousands of people showed up looking for employment at BC Hydro’s Northern B.C. job fairs.”
Training the next generation
Adding fuel to the fire is evidence that, in addition to workers from other parts of Canada, the project will be taking on temporary foreign workers, which could put the domestic skills market at risk. “If we continue to use temporary foreign workers, Canadians will not get the opportunity to train and gain experience in the fields where we do see a lack of qualified workers,” explains Cochrane. “Using a union workforce means expanding the amount of apprentices on projects, and training the next generation of Canadian workers.” Cochrane adds that former Premier W.A.C. Bennett saw the value in building B.C.’s dams using project labour agreements with unions, a model utilized by BC Hydro for decades since then. Those agreements have delivered quality work on time and on budget with few worker injuries while helping to maintain a highly trained skilled workforce here in British Columbia.
For this project, and the many future projects of similar scale, we must ensure those doing the hiring will raise their eyes and take the long view. “Hiring union workers creates a legacy of a strong, skilled workforce right here in B.C. that will prevent future skills shortages and be ready for the major infrastructure and resource projects multiple levels of government are planning,” says Cochrane.
The decisions being made now will have an impact felt for decades to come.