Machinery sitting at the new Mills Memorial Hospital site prior to the start of construction on May 28, 2021. (Binny Paul/Terrace Standard)

Mills hospital work camp called expensive, unnecessary

Local union president calls for local hire mandate

The plan to build a large work camp to house out-of-town workers for the Mills Memorial Hospital replacement project adds costs that aren’t necessary, said the president of the northwest local of the Construction, Maintenance and Allied Workers Canada.

Mike Jensen further said the provincial government’s refusal to put in place provisions for local hire and training works against the interests of northwestern B.C. residents.

Those provisions, formally called a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), were brought in by the provincial government in 2018 and primarily used in southern B.C. highway and bridge construction projects.

But there’s no reason why it could not be used on the $447.5 million hospital replacement project here, said Jensen.

“A CBA would save money as opposed to a camp,” said Jensen. “But right now it will be local taxpayers paying to house out of town workers.”

He said there’s also an element of fairness in that a local project should have local hire as a priority.

“We’ve had a long history of this,” said Jensen. “The government brings in something but then does not equitably apply it across the province.”

Jensen estimates a CBA to hire local carpenters would save at least $7 million a year during construction.

“CBAs are meant to ensure local employment and training, including Indigenous people and women,” he said. “The training opportunities are there, taking people from apprentices through to Red Seal in the skilled trades.”

Jensen did acknowledge that while not every position on the Mills replacement project could be filled by a local person, at least there is firm language in a CBA for local hire and training.

CBAs in the south call for large-scale public sector construction projects to use workers who are members of 19 trades unions making up the B.C. Building Trades Council. Companies are to hire members of those unions through a newly-formed provincial crown corporation. 

The CBAs in the south carry no-strike/no-lockout clauses and for the purposes of hiring defines a local as someone who resides within 100 kilometres of a specific project.

Jensen said while the Northern Health Authority, under whose name Mills would be built, has talked about a preference for local hire it has not laid out a firm commitment.

“That’s the kind of commitment that would be in a CBA,” he said.

Jensen also met with provincial labour minister Harry Bains who suggested there mght be a 20 per cent local hiring commitment, a figure Jensen called inadequate.

“It’s local people paying for this hospital through the hospital district and other taxes so they should have a local benefit,” he said.

Locals working on the project will also be paying taxes from the wages they earn, something that wouldn’t be the case with outside workers, Jensen added.

He said he did speak with an official from PCL Construction – the company with whom the province is now negotiating a final construction contract – about signing a CBA. However, after PCL’s interest grew in a work camp, the prospect of a CBA was shelved, Jensen added.

Provincial health minister Adrian Dix, in Terrace in 2019 to announce the project will be going forward, rejected the prospect of a CBA, saying the timeline was such that one could not be incorporated into the construction plan.

Jensen noted that Dix said that two years ago and that a final contract between the province and PCL – the only company who was interested in the project – has still not been signed.

“I don’t think they are arguing about paint colours,” said Jensen.

PCL’s plans for a work camp briefly surfaced via a City of Terrace memo in March about a location at the Skeena Industrial Development Park south of the Northwest Regional Airport.

PCL had been asking for three-year temporary use permit for a location at the industrial park for as many as 350 workers but the city shelved the request upon the advice of its lawyers.

PCL defers any comment about the project to the Northern Health Authority until such time that a final contract has been signed.

But it has started advertising for workers for the project and already moved equipment to the construction site.

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