For Jim Hogarth, the government’s latest omnibus bill is a giant step backwards for tradespeople across Ontario.
“Right now, the gun is to everyone’s head. They need to pull the bill and start over,” he says.
Hogarth is president of the Progressive Certified Trades Coalition, which has accused the government of putting worker and public safety at risk with a portion of Bill 70, which will be used to implement measures in this year’s fall economic statement. One section includes major structural changes to the way the province regulates construction, by scaling back the role of the Ontario College of Trades.
The province's building trades are divided into two groups. Compulsory trades, such as plumbing and electricity, have a monopoly on the work they do, and on certifying that workers are properly trained to do it. Non-compulsory trades, such as carpentry, are more informal, and certification can be voluntary.
Currently, the College is the arbiter of what work falls under the scope of a compulsory trade and what falls under a non-compulsory trade; appeals about those decisions are heard by a justice of the peace (who typically would not have a specialized knowledge of Ontario labour law). Once Bill 70 passes, those appeals will instead be heard by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The legislation also opens the door to have work that’s currently reserved for compulsory trades shared with non-compulsory trades.
Construction companies have historically preferred to use non-compulsory trades as much as possible: because they don't have certification requirements, they tend to be both cheaper and more flexible. But the province’s 200,000 compulsory tradespeople obviously want to protect as much of their work as they can. They also say the new rules will put the public at risk of shoddy or even dangerous construction.
A few thousand of them protested Bill 70 on the lawn of Queen’s Park last week, believing the labour relations board is likely to resolve more arguments in favour of non-compulsory trades, at the expense of the compulsory ones. That may lower costs for construction companies, but Hogarth worries the gains will come at the expense of labourers he represents, and of public safety. In Ontario’s $36-billion construction industry, even relatively small changes in costs can have large absolute effects — and the College’s critics maintain that body has made it significantly more expensive to build here.
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Who gets to build what?
The Ontario College of Trades was created in 2009 by the Liberals in an attempt to raise the profile of the construction industry by giving it a professional, self-regulating body comparable to the professional colleges that oversee doctors, lawyers, and other groups. It was also, not incidentally, an attempt to force parts of the industry out of the black market, providing workers with better protections and boosting provincial revenue by encouraging more formal transactions instead of under-the-table cash payments. All of this, as with any professional college, is in the hopes of better protecting the public interest.
However, by 2014 it had become a lightning rod in the industry and at Queen’s Park. Though created in 2009 the College only started full operations in 2013, and businesses very quickly began objecting to its enforcement, with officers entering construction sites and ordering contractors to halt work the College had determined should be done by a different trade.
In 2014, the College also considered a carpenters' union proposal to make carpentry a compulsory trade, something that would have been rejected out of hand prior to the College's creation. Then-federal minister of employment Jason Kenney warned it would be a nationally significant economic disaster. The proposal also set off alarm bells around the construction industry, as it would raise costs while requiring tens of thousands of people working as carpenters to prove their certification, or stop working. In response to that proposal and other complaints, then-Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak pledged to abolish the College outright if the Tories won the 2014 election. When the Liberals won instead, they preserved the College but commissioned two reviews of it.
'Levelling the playing field'
Non-compulsory trades are understandably more positive about the changes, saying enforcement that was biased in favour of the compulsory trades will now, they hope, be more balanced.
“We just want to level the playing field … Right now they don’t have anywhere to go [for an appeal], and it’s just wrong,” says Joseph Maloney of the Coalition of Non-Compulsory Construction Trades of Ontario.
Maloney says the compulsory trades used the College to shift work away from non-compulsory workers. It’s a charge that’s widely heard in the construction industry, and one Hogarth partially acknowledges.
“To a certain degree, they’re right," Hogarth says. "Some trades did over-step, and were looking at the College as the golden goose.” He says he wants both sides of the industry to come together without weakening the College, and ideally, without the involvement of the labour relations board. (Because that board can consider a broader range of factors, such as the state of the economy, than the College, the trades consider it more business-friendly.)
Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn defended the government’s changes in an interview with TVO.org this week.
“We brought forward these amendments, a lot of building trades agree with us, the voluntary trades agree with us, we’ve got a large degree of support from the business itself, but unfortunately a few others still have problems with the bill.”
He also acknowledged that the compulsory trades' reaction — with protests and strident warnings that public safety could be at risk, by potentially allowing uncertified trades to do work in delicate, context-sensitive jobs like electricity or plumbing — lends some credence to the accusation that those trades were using the College to protect their own turf.
“It certainly plays into that argument. It’s not an argument I really buy," Flynn said. "I think the College has a good future if cooler heads prevail.”
The government allowed some amendments to Bill 70 on Tuesday, one of which requires the OLRB to give due consideration to the core purposes of the College — elevating the status of the trades, professionalizing and formalizing them, and protecting the public interest — when it makes its decisions.
One way or another, Bill 70 is expected to be passed by the legislature on Thursday. The province's trades, compulsory and non-compulsory alike, are waiting to see what happens next.
Correction: This article originally stated that the College of Trades proposed making general carpentry a compulsory trade in 2014, and that the College is currently the final arbiter of what work gets designated as compulsory (or not). In fact it was the carpenters' union that made the proposal (which was then considered by the College), and currently appeals to College designations are heard by justices of the peace.
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