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How Will the Construction Industry Shape Itself Following Bill 51?

How Will the Construction Industry Shape Itself Following Bill 51?

Advice for contractorHow Will the Construction Industry Shape Itself Following Bill 51?

Bill 51—an Act to modernize the construction industry—is a legislative proposal slated to bring significant reform in the construction industry. Following a period of understanding its background and basic principles, it’s rather difficult to determine whether this proposed legislation will reach its intended purpose or if it’ll simply negatively impact the lives of a part of the province’s workforce.  

Bill 51: Purpose and Context of Proposed Legislation

Legislative Background 

Fifty-six years, that’s how long it took the National Assembly of Québec to reform an industry regulated by legislation that met the demands of a bygone era—Act R-20. 

Its intended purpose was to protect regional workers by defining a province-specific policy regarding terms of hiring as well as possible exemptions. 

However, today, the industry is faced with a chronic labour shortage, and all sectors are bearing the weight of it:

  • Infrastructure upgrading 

  • Housing construction 

  • New infrastructures 

With its strict rules and administrative complexities, Quebec was trailing behind all other Canadian provinces and territories, notably in terms of: 

  • Normative framework 

  • Strict trades practices

  • Workers’ geographic mobility restrictions

  • Lack of professional training  

Therefore, by way of the legislative proposal Bill 51, the Parliament is driven by industrial and social imperatives. 

General Principles 

There are seven broad principles to come out of Bill 51. One part is aimed at meeting workers’ interests, while another is directed at company heads. Given that information, the legislative drafter then sought to find the necessary balance between company needs and those of workers, doing so within a labour market that has greatly evolved since the 1960s.

Retroactive Pay Adjustment

A retroactive pay adjustment is a long-awaited initiative by labour unions. The reality of the situation was that, between every collective agreement negotiation done by labour unions, pay increases weren’t retroactively applied when the previous collective agreement was rendered null and void. 

In other words, employers had a vested interest in dragging out the negotiations to make cuts at the expense of employee wages. To see this reform through, the government had no choice but to concede, along with unions, on the matter. 

Hence, proceeding as such brought the construction industry out of a singular operating method, one that was foreign to other professional sectors. 

In order to move forward with this adjustment, a fund— Fonds de rétroactivité salariale de l’industrie de la construction—was established. To protect constituents from a lack of diligence and good faith during negotiations, the Tribunal administratif (Administrative Tribunal) may be invoked.  

Simplified Access to Alternative Dispute Resolution

Act R-20 states that the Commission de la construction du Québec can authorize seeking arbitration if a clause stipulated in a collective agreement is subject to conflict. 

Therefore, to streamline the process of resorting to this alternative dispute resolution by way of arbitration, said act lifts this obligation.

Foreign Credential Recognition

The construction industry’s chronic labour shortage mandates foreign labour in Quebec and Canada, too. To streamline the hiring process of foreign workers, the law grants authority to the construction commission to establish standards recognizing credentials awarded outside the province of Quebec. 

Affirmative Action in the Workplace

The overview regarding the hiring of women or Indigenous workers in the construction industry is rather concerning. In the industry, 20% to 30% of qualified women aren’t able to find work. According to union representatives in Côte-Nord, the numbers are just as deplorable when it comes to Indigenous workers. 

Therefore, legislative proposal Bill 51 aims to support minorities in the province of Quebec by empowering: 

  • Women

  • First Nations members

  • Immigrant workers 

  • Disabled individuals 

To facilitate the hiring process, the proposed legislation states, in section 69, that “a woman or a person who is representative of the diversity of Québec society,” holding a journeyperson certificate, can be assigned to work in other regions within the province, provided that they have worked 400 hours for their employer, as opposed to the 750 hours mandated for other workers. 

Lastly, section 60, paragraph 13.4, is intended to streamline the recognition of professional credentials (diplomas) of foreign workers. This is a step in the right direction, undoubtedly changing the lives of immigrant workers.  

Lift Worker-Related Mobility Restrictions

To offset modern labour market restrictions, parliament members, in collaboration with business owner representatives, have decided to streamline worker mobility. 

In light of the labour shortage, the first paragraph of section 38, respecting the hiring and mobility of construction industry workers, was amended. The latter prohibited all employers from assigning workers anywhere else within the province of Quebec if said worker hadn’t yet accrued at least 1,500 work hours with them. 

This hourly scale has been revised to 400 hours for women and minority workers, and 750 hours for all other workers. 

The Rise of Versatile Workers

This might be the most criticized section of the reform by union representatives, yet one of the most anticipated by employers. 

Increasingly versatile workers means that a journeyperson can be asked, by their employer, to carry out tasks that are job-adjacent. Three cumulative conditions allow employers to request an employee to perform a task outside of their immediate job description:

  1. The work is related to the journeyperson trade definition.

  2. The task is a part of the same work sequence and ensures uninterrupted workflow (preparation and finish included).

  3. The workload amounts to less than a day’s work. 

However, here’s where the issue regarding versatility lies, as some trades may endanger the safety of workers or individuals, and are therefore excluded from this transition:

  • Electricians

  • Pipefitters 

  • Fire protection or elevator mechanics 

  • Refrigeration mechanics 

Therefore, the legislative drafter implicitly acknowledges that while the versatility of the workforce is recognized, it also translates into declining quality of work, hence why some trades must be excluded from it for obvious safety reasons.  

Lessen the Administrative Red Tape

The proposed legislation for Bill 51 is intended to lessen the administrative red tape. Naturally, the latter generates costs that are five times more significant for companies with fewer than five workers ($7,023). These companies make up 79% of the construction industry. Companies with over 100 employees incur costs of $1,237. 

As such, this legislative proposal should likely put an end to the competitive edge enjoyed by big companies within the construction industry. 

How is it impacting the construction industry?

Reaction and Controversy Surrounding Bill 51

While company heads are happy with the ongoing reform, the same can’t be said about unions, who are more conflicted on the matter. There are several reasons for that, such as:

  • Earnings mobility may impoverish already at-risk regions

  • This newfound versatility risks diminishing journeyperson qualifications

  • Retroactive pay must be negotiated 

Sure, efforts are being made, most notably in terms of affirmative action toward at-risk communities within the industry. Foreign worker credential recognition is one of the avenues sought that may allow employers and foreign workers to come out of this reform on top.  

Where was Quebec in all of this compared to the rest of Canada?

The applicable regime since 1968, under Act R-20—Act Respecting Labour Relations, Vocational Training, and Workforce Management in the Construction Industry—is the most stringent of all in Canada. However, it’s not as detrimental in terms of competitiveness. 

As for wages, when you take into account the cost of materials,  Quebec-based workers aren’t paid any less well than others. And, working off the books isn’t more widespread, costs aren’t any greater, nor is the competitive aspect less effective. 

Naturally, other provinces are guided by, first and foremost, customs and union practices, while Quebec heavily relies on laws and regulations framing the construction industry. 

However, the comparison made between different provincial collective agreements highlights very significant similarities. Therefore, it may be, in hindsight, that the need to reform the industry wasn’t as imperative as it might have seemed.

What about Bill 59?

With the 860,000 new housing units needed to meet the needs of Quebec residents by 2030, and the 35,000 workers expected on Hydro-Québec worksites alone, it makes for a massive challenge ahead.

Naturally, ensuring substantial work flexibility can only mean further restricting workers’ rights. This is exactly what’s implied regarding workers’ mobility and their heightened versatility, potentially leading to a decline in the quality of the work carried out.

Over a short period of time, the impact of Bill 51 may be largely dependent on how the stakeholders choose to apply it. Unfortunately, as of now, nothing guarantees that the reform will meet the needs of Quebec society in terms of infrastructure.

However, over an extended period of time, the act to modernize the construction industry could turn out to be especially detrimental to provincial regions, as well as Quebec-based workers. In fact, what’s going to happen beyond 2030?

The labour market could see fewer jobs available, reverting to where it was back in the 1960s, a time during which urban centres like Québec City and Montréal, were considered influential, posing a threat to other regions. This opens up another dialogue, one in which this Act is questioned as to whether it will result in a potential societal crisis.

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Last modified 2024-02-28

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