Labour Minister Harry Bains joins BCGEU president Stephanie Smith and supporters recycling copies of the Employment Standards Branch “self-help kit” for workers reporting pay disputes, Surrey, Aug. 28, 2019. A teachers’ union representative holds a banner behind to protest the lack of a new contract. (B.C. government)

B.C. VIEWS: More Labour Day milestones for the NDP

Gift to U.S.-based construction unions keeps on giving

Labour Minister Harry Bains got a rare thumbs-up from the opposition with his latest move to remake the province’s workplace rules, this time adding more compliance staff to the Employment Standards Branch.

The main aim is to help migrant workers and new immigrants who tend to be in casual work, like farm work, where long hours and short paycheques are more likely to be a problem. Bains says 60 staff are being added to the office, and he made a show of ceremonially tearing up and recycling the “self-help kit” for employment standards complaints introduced by the B.C. Liberals in 2003.

Complaints fell from 11,000 to 6,000 annually over the years since, and “the employers didn’t suddenly decide to obey the law,” Bains said. Workers who lack language skills or were afraid to confront an employer over wages were just letting it go.

Bains hastened to add that most B.C. employers don’t rip off vulnerable workers, but some do, and they get an advantage over honest operators. He was joined by representatives of Mosaic, a charity helping migrant workers, and B.C. Government Employees Union president Stephanie Smith, whose union expands again.

(Smith left the event in Surrey to announce strike notice to shut down the Kootenay Lake ferry for the Labour Day weekend.)

These employment changes passed the B.C. legislature this spring, along with new restrictions on kids under 16 working, a big expansion of union successor rights into the private sector for contracted food, security, bus and janitorial services, and new union “raiding” provisions.

RELATED: Cost jumps 35% for Highway 1 widening project

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B.C. Liberal labour critic John Martin said his party has no issue with increasing Employment Standards Branch staff. We aging baby boomers had better get used to more migrant workers for all those jobs we can’t do, and our children mostly won’t.

Martin is concerned about other regulations that are only now getting cabinet approval and taking effect. This fall harvest will indicate how large farms will cope with age restrictions, higher minimum wages, the employer health tax and the rest of the NDP agenda.

Union-only highway and bridge construction is about to get into high gear as well. I’m advised by the transportation ministry that the Pattullo Bridge replacement budget has not changed from $1.377 billion as the award of contract approaches. That’s to replace this 80-year-old four-lane bridge between New Westminster and Surrey with a four-lane-plus-bike-lane bridge.

The NDP’s absurdly misnamed “community benefits agreement” will, Transportation Minister Claire Trevena concedes, increase the Pattullo cost by seven per cent. This is to provide union wages and dues, strict craft lines dividing tasks, and a new bureaucracy for the 19 selected unions to collect dues and a new administration tax on workers.

By my calculation, $100 million is 7.26 per cent of the budget, so that’s the Pattullo price tag for returning B.C.’s public construction to the golden age of the 1970s.

The first highway job under the union deal, four-laning a short section of Highway 1 near Revelstoke, jumped 35 per cent when it was awarded, due to undisclosed labour cost, plus unforeseen increases in steel and asphalt prices.

Still to come on the Kamloops-to-Alberta stretch of Highway 1 are a new Quartz Creek bridge and 2.5-km widening near Golden; widening 12 km east of Chase; four-laning, frontage and intersection upgrades at Salmon Arm; four-laning two kilometres with bridge replacement at Sicamous; and the fourth and final phase of the spectacularly expensive Kicking Horse Canyon.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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