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British Columbia government projects worth billions of dollars will now be built under a so-called community benefits agreement that sets out job training, who can work on the projects and the wages to be paid.

The agreement is aimed at boosting apprenticeship opportunities and hiring more women, Indigenous people and other under-represented workers who will be organized under a new Crown corporation – BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc.

Premier John Horgan said Monday the framework will make it a priority to hire local workers and provide good wages for people building roads, bridges, transit and hospitals.

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However, independent contractors and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation say it’s really a sweetheart deal for unions that will force costs up for public infrastructure.

Horgan said the framework will allow everyone to bid on the projects.

“Our objective here is to make sure that we can, to the greatest extent possible, hire local contractors to make sure they hire local workers,” Horgan said. “I’m confident there will be no shortage of work.”

The first two projects to be delivered under the plan will be the new $1.3-billion Pattullo Bridge and the four-lane expansion between Kamloops and the Alberta boundary on Highway 1.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation said it has deep concerns with the B.C. government’s new “union first” rule for taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects.

Contracts for bridges, roads and hospitals should go to groups with the best bids, said Kris Sims, B.C. director of the federation.

“It’s very troubling to see the NDP government creating a new Crown corporation just to hand out contracts to their favourite unions, all at taxpayers’ expense.”

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The Independent Contractors and Business Association said there are nearly $30-billion in government construction projects planned over the next three years and overpaying by creating a union monopoly will cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

The government’s announcement was long on taxpayer costs and short on details, said Chris Gardner, president of the association.

“Procurement should be open, fair and transparent, not a payoff for political favours.”

Horgan said the framework is flexible, would maximize the number of quality bidders and ensure public projects are competitive.

“This is a new way of doing business in British Columbia, the previous government delayed and slowed projects by putting obstacles in the way,” he told a news conference at the ironworkers training facility at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Tom Sigurdson of the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades Council said the best news coming out of the announcement is for apprentices currently in the system.

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He said the province is facing a severe shortage of skilled labour with more workers leaving than are entering the work force.

“One of the reasons that we have a shortage, or incompletions in the apprenticeship system, is because apprentices are not given job opportunities,” he said. “This is going to allow for apprentices to be on publicly funded projects. It’s something we’ve been calling for for years.”

Sigurdson said the agreement means the government will, essentially, be the employer.

The Crown agency will work with winning contractors to hire trades and will do the payroll and all the paperwork.

“We do have a number of contractors that do not play in the legitimate economy,” Sigurdson said. “In the construction industry there are a lot of workers who are in the underground economy and the contractors are very happy to pay them cash. That’s going to end.”

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