Contractors association calls for removal of trade barriers

Matt Gardner
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A Saskatchewan contractors group is expressing support for Premier Brad Wall’s call to remove what it views as barriers to trade and equal procurement of contracts in other provinces.

The Merit Contractors Association of Saskatchewan, which is the province’s only open shop organization, argues that Saskatchewan companies are at a disadvantage in provinces where local and/or unionized firms receive preferential treatment when bidding on contracts.

“One of the basic tenements of open shop philosophy and Merit Contractors Association is the whole idea of free enterprise, fair competition, open bidding -- all of those things that make our construction market function most effectively,” executive director Karen Low said. “When you start putting up artificial barriers, that starts decreasing the effectiveness of the construction market.”

“It’s all a matter of fairness,” she added, noting that Saskatchewan does not have policies in place that favour local or unionized companies.

“We think it’s only fair that other provinces should operate in the same fashion … I don’t think there’s anybody out there that would disagree, if an Ontario contractor can come in here and do work and be competitive with Saskatchewan contractors, why doesn’t the same apply in Toronto?”

Low pointed to the large number of construction companies from outside the province that are awarded contracts for work in Saskatchewan.

As a result of the New West Partnership, a trade agreement signed by Western premiers, few barriers remain for movement of construction companies through Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

Low urged provinces such as Ontario to remove the local content provision that she argued give an advantage to firms based in those provinces.

She also criticized the practice of closed tendering, in which only unionized contractors are able to bid on certain projects.

“They’re excluding non-union contractors … The whole idea of closed tendering is not a way to improve the efficiency of the construction market,” Low said.

Reiterating the concept of fair competition, she noted that 85 per cent of construction companies in Saskatchewan are unionized while the remaining 15 per cent are non-unionized.

“Let’s say SaskPower or SaskTel or one of the Crowns … had some kind of directive to only allow unionized companies to bid on their projects -- do you think that would be an efficient way to run their tendering?” Low asked.

When you start putting up artificial barriers, that starts decreasing the effectiveness of the construction market. Karen Low

Merit’s contention that awarding contracts to unionized companies represents a barrier to free trade was sharply criticized by CUPE Saskatchewan president Tom Graham.

“If there’s something there that prevents fair trade from happening, we’re not opposed to getting rid of it,” Graham said. “But if it’s simply to reduce working standards -- which is really what Merit’s about -- we’re totally opposed to it.”

While Low argued against the perception that non-unionized workers receive lower wages than unionized workers -- citing a survey by Merit of wages paid in the non-union sector that suggested non-unionized workers make just as much and sometimes more -- Graham flatly rejected her argument.

Besides stating that non-unionized workers are generally paid less, Graham argued that another issue was even more significant.

“There’s no real voice for a worker if there’s something amiss in the workplace,” he said. “That’s really a bigger advantage of having a union is you have a say of sorts.

“If the employer’s acting inappropriately and you’re a single individual, well, we’ve all seen it … where you can go to the labour board, but typically you are going to lose your job.”

Graham asked why Merit’s concern for local businesses did not include fighting the Saskatchewan government’s privatization of services to out-of-province companies, such as the contracting out of health laundry services to the Alberta-based K-Bro Linens Systems.

“If Merit is really concerned about local businesses, then it should be talking about those kinds of things as well -- not just trying to dump it all down on how much you pay working people, and it seems to me that’s really all they’re about,” he said.

If Merit wishes to obtain more work in other provinces, Graham added, “They should come in with a competitive bid and demonstrate to those authorities that they’ll be good for the local economy, and they’re going to employ people and put money into the local economy.

“I mean, that’s why you would support a local business … to ensure that you have a strong business sector that can be competitive.”

Organizations: Merit Contractors Association of Saskatchewan, New West Partnership

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Ontario, Toronto Alberta British Columbia

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