Vancouver Island Highway brings changing face of labour to construction

August 31, 2000

No one is surprised, these days, to encounter a female doctor, lawyer or accountant. Erasing occupational barriers for women was one of the aims of the feminist revolution of the 1970s and '80s, and in many ways it succeeded. But why is it still easier for a woman to be a lawyer than a carpenter? A university professor than an electrician? A doctor than a crane operator?

The occupations in the construction trades are among the least integrated of all. Not only have women been kept out, but so too have other potential workers from minority groups. In B.C. women account for less than 1% of the construction trades. The story is the same for First Nations, only slightly better for other visible minorities, and most dismal for those with disabilities. Something needed to be done.

An important first step was made when women and First Nations were trained for construction work on the Vancouver Island Highway. During peak building periods the people from these two 'equity hire' groups, in about equal proportions, accounted for over 22% of the workforce. The lesson from this experience is that very deliberate actions are needed to break down the barriers in construction, barriers that one person involved in the initiative described as "made of concrete and reinforced with steel."

Part of the problem in integrating construction jobs has to do with the work culture of the industry. It is frequently a brutal culture where 'testing' of new workers is particularly discouraging for those not traditionally welcome in the industry. In highway construction, women and minorities are also kept out by the traditional ways that people are trained. Normally this training is unsystematic and relies heavily on having access to machinery, usually through a relative or someone you know.

The success of integrating the workforce on the Vancouver Island Highway resulted from a variety of innovative management initiatives. One unusual feature was the centralized hiring of all construction labour on the project though a single employer, Highway Constructors Limited (HCL). HCL, a government company, was responsible for training and dispatching workers to private contractors. Another important feature was the actual building of a section of the highway by the trainees. But most significantly, the contract with the private contractors and trade unions gave priority in hiring to equity employees. None of this would have happened without support from the highest levels of government.

This highway project was often featured in the news during its peak building years because of its union-only hiring policy. Contractors who opposed this policy claimed a unionized workforce would make the project too expensive. However, to date, with most of the project completed, the work has been accomplished within the budget and on time. This has occurred while at the same time meeting the government's social objectives of hiring and training local labour.

Not everyone happily accepted women and First Nations in the workforce. One supervisor reported that when an 'equity hire' arrived to work on his section of the highway "the immediate reaction of sixty percent of the guys was pure hatred." All parties involved faced difficult challenges. For the unions these included a surrender of their traditional control of the hiring hall to HCL and receiving pay that was less than union rates. Contractors had to accept that all employees become unionized and be paid at a standard rate. And all personnel had to accept contract language that gave priority to both local hire and employment equity in dispatch.

These difficulties were not easily sorted out, but after what one union official described as a period of "some arguing and jockeying and posturing, we all figured it out."

HCL's efforts to ensure equity on the Vancouver Island Highway Project were stunningly successful and should be a template for other large-scale construction projects in B.C. But check out your local building initiative. Do you see women working at any job -- other than as flaggers? Not likely. New initiatives such as the Lions Gate Bridge or the Rapid Transit Project were not planned with training programs for 'equity hires' at the outset.

Transit construction jobs are good jobs that pay well. They involve massive amounts of public money and employ lots of people. The government's initiatives on the Vancouver Island Highway are an approach that should be replicated on other projects.