Premier Christy Clark meets with B.C. union leaders, September 2013. The Site C dam has reignited tensions, as the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades goes to court to challenge labour rules for the project.

B.C.’s labour market goes global

As Ottawa cracks down on its temporary foreign worker program, B.C. building trades protest Site C dam plans

VICTORIA – The labour situation in B.C. is showing increased signs of strain, even before a long-promised boom in heavy construction gets set to ramp up this summer.

Jobs Minister Shirley Bond announced last week that B.C. is suspending its “provincial nomination” program for 90 days. This program allows the province to recommend people for federal immigration, based on skills in demand in B.C.

The B.C. provincial nomination program saw its number of applications triple to 1,200 for the month of December, as the federal government cracked down on the temporary foreign worker program. Thousands of temporary foreign workers who have hit the four-year deadline are being sent home, with many of them turning to the provincial nomination track.

Bond has been pleading with Ottawa to raise B.C.’s annual provincial nomination quota from 5,000 to 7,000 or more. The three-month pause is so her ministry can add staff and speed up processing time. Backlogged applicants will still be considered, and exemptions for health care workers and a northeast pilot program are being maintained.

Even with the current slump in energy prices and before anticipated pipeline and liquefied natural gas projects start, the labour shortage in the northeast is near crisis.

The last time I was in Dawson Creek, radio ads were offering signing bonuses for qualified truck drivers. In Fort St. John, grocery and hardware retailers have come to depend on foreign workers to keep going.

While supposedly educated young people work part-time and refuse to leave the comforts of southern city life, this is the reality up north, and it’s only going to get worse.

This summer, work is scheduled to start on the Site C dam on the Peace River, the most costly construction project in B.C. history. And a union vs. non-union battle reminiscent of the old Expo 86 labour wars is underway.

The B.C. and Yukon Building Trades (BCYT) are demanding a project agreement that requires all workers on Site C to be paid their rates, and are warning of chaos on the huge project if they don’t get their way.

BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald told me that’s not all they want. They are also seeking quotas for members of their unions on a project that will be a small city of 1,700 people at peak construction.

BCYT executive director Tom Sigurdson says that while all sides acknowledge the need for foreign workers for Site C, he wants to control that too, working with their affiliated unions in the United States.

There will be non-union construction firms, some of them owned by aboriginal communities in the north. There will be contractors affiliated with the Christian Labour Association of Canada. The BCYT hopes to set wages and conditions for them all, and influence Ottawa’s temporary foreign worker program to boot.

McDonald and Premier Christy Clark have politely told them to pound sand. Their formula would add millions in costs to the project, driving up BC Hydro rates even more than they are already rising. BC Hydro has already done dam upgrade projects using a “managed open site” model and it’s not inclined to return to the era of W.A.C. Bennett as Sigurdson demands.

Sigurdson makes a valid point that when two concrete masons compare paycheques on the Site C project and one sees he’s making $5 an hour less, he won’t be happy. He will want the higher rate, and the BCYT is taking BC Hydro to court to ensure they can recruit new members on the site.

It looks like a hot summer ahead.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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