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One of the features of BC Hydro's big projects in recent history has been a progressive hiring regime – contractors have been required to ensure locals and First Nations are given first crack at jobs, and a portion of the work is reserved for apprentices so they can earn certification in the trades.

These are all objectives shared by Premier Christy Clark. She has promised First Nations that they will benefit from resource development; she has vowed that any jobs in the liquefied natural gas sector will see B.C.-first hiring. And she is expected to announce shortly an apprenticeship requirement for public-sector projects.

But on Site C, the biggest public infrastructure project in the province's history, BC Hydro has launched a different labour agenda. It is not just that it has abandoned the union model that has served the Crown corporation since 1963, but preferential hiring standards are not a chief concern.

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On the $1-billion John Hart refit on Vancouver Island, which is being completed under a project labour agreement with the building trade unions, the contractor is bound to hire local. "The hiring process shall be to first dispatch qualified union members who are local residents from the affiliated union's dispatch. The prime contractor or contractor shall next hire other qualified local residents," the pact states.

As well, "qualified First Nations people shall be name requested by the prime contractor or contractor and the affiliated union(s) shall clear such employees."

On Site C, the local-hire objective is framed as an advertising obligation. Contractors are required to post employment opportunities in the Peace Region and websites of local employment agencies and participate in local job fairs.

There are reporting requirements included in the "site conditions" set down by Hydro for labour, but no targets for equity hiring.

There will be some kind of apprentice plan, but Hydro seems to be waiting for the Premier, who is expected to impose a minimum number of apprentices on public infrastructure projects to help produce new qualified journeymen.

In the meantime, bids on one of the first major portions of Site C are due at the end of March, and Hydro seems preoccupied with curbing union influence.

The site conditions say workers are prohibited from "any form of violence, harassment, intimidation, bullying or any other disparaging or demeaning conduct directed by a worker to another worker for any reason including based on any union affiliation or lack of union affiliation."

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The B.C. Liberal government was well aware that its Crown corporation intended to abandon the organized labour model that has been used on its major projects for five decades.

At the same time, Ms. Clark has worked hard in the past two years to shed her anti-union reputation, opening her door to labour leaders. When the building trades filed a lawsuit against Hydro last week over the proposed labour model for Site C, it took less than 24 hours for the Premier to publicly reprimand the Hydro management team, saying its anti-union labour policy went too far.

She did stand by the general notion of an open-shop construction site, however. Ms. Clark's government has staked its reputation on delivering Site C on time and on budget – and labour costs are both significant, and flexible. Hydro says its new open-shop mandate is designed to be inclusive, but the unspoken objective is to beat down costs by allowing non-union contractors to trim payroll expenses.

BC Hydro is relying on that flexibility – there are already indications that "on time, on budget" is not going to be easy to achieve.

The initial contract bids for site clearing have been rejected by Hydro. Officials say they "felt that the proposals received did not meet the procurement objectives for the contract." Hydro won't say if the bids came in too high, but it is either that or they couldn't meet the schedule. As well, of the four contractor consortiums that have been short-listed for the main dam construction, many of the big Canadian firms, such as Kiewit, PCL and Bechtel, are notably absent. Perhaps Hydro has trimmed the margins too tight to entice those firms to jump on this megaproject.

Until now, the Premier's office has left Hydro's management to look after the details. Last week's embarrassing reprimand from the Premier may signal that the reins are being pulled tighter.

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