Quebec construction laws spark protest
The Toronto Star Monday, BUSINESS TODAY December 14, 1992 (B4)
SUBJECT: construction regulation Quebec
OTTAWA – When former boxing champ Gaetan Hart put on his carpenter’s gear to get some training money and pre-fight publicity in June, he got more than he counted on.
An inspector from the Quebec Construction Commission spotted him on an Aylmer residential construction job. Shortly after a television crew left, Hart got a summons to pay a $150 fine. He was caught again in August – this time for $300 – working without one of the 6,000 work permits that all Outaouais-area construction workers need to work.
Hart says he will go to jail rather than pay the fines when his case comes up in a Hull court in February. « I don’t think I should be fined for wanting to work rather than take welfare. » An experienced carpenter, Hart worked legally for years in the Outaouais before his boxing career took off in the early ’80s. But when it faded, he was denied a new permit because of work shortages.
The Quebec construction laws that keep Ontario workers out of the Outaouais area have long been a touchy issue along the border between the provinces.
What many Ontarians don’t know is the tough regulations appear to be forcing some Quebec residents to flee their province to
find work. Take Hart for example. « I want to work in Quebec where everybody knows me from my boxing career. But the only peoplewho will give me work is Ontario companies. »
Since hanging up his gloves after his last fight in October, Hart has worked for a Cornwall-based company, selling and installing alarm systems. « The problem is this Quebec law; it’s very stupid. » His boss and friend, cement contractor Jocelyn Dumais, also faces a fine of $1,600 for employing Hart last summer. The two are teaming up with scores of other construction workers to fight the permit system that forces them to « travailler au noir » in the huge Quebec construction black market.
But Jean Therrien, the director of the Hull office of the Quebec Construction Commission, said Hart was treated no differently from anyone else in a regulated industry. »When you have 35 to 40 per cent unemployment in construction, how can you issue cards to people who want to work in construction for a while and then go back to their regular jobs when things get better? »
But Dumais said: « The permit system turns law-abiding people into criminals. They want to put food on the table but they get treated worse than illegal immigrants. »
Researcher Mike Dagg said 369 charges were laid by construction inspectors over the last two years in the Outaouais. « It’s a system that encourages total disrespect for the law. »
The Dumais group has found a lawyer who is willing to fight the charges for a small fee. In the past, most workers paid the fines because they couldn’t afford to lose a day’s work in court. And they are organizing a political lobby to try to change the tough laws that make Quebec construction unique in North America.
But Therrien said his office works just like construction union hiring halls in Ontario – ensuring that qualified and experienced workers get top priority for available jobs.
Another storm is brewing in New Brunswick after St. John contractor Randy Brown was fined and his crews werekicked off a Montreal hotel job.He is suing, and N.B. Premier Frank McKenna has threatened retaliation against Quebec contractors if the provincial barrier doesn’t come down.
But Quebec told the recent federal- provincial conference on internal trade barriers it wants to discuss wine and spirits issues before it considers construction issues. Under Quebec construction law, all workers and contractors must belong to central unions or contractor organizations, which bargain every three years.
The Quebec Construction Commission runs the system and rations the work permits of about 120,000 workers according to the work available and turnover in the work force. Government inspectors check construction sites regularly looking for workers who don’t have permits, do jobs they’re not qualified for, lack safety certificates or aren’t paid the official rate of $17 to $21 an hour.
They are widely feared. If an inspector suddenly appears, illegal workers jump into dumpsters, hide in closets or simply run away.« We have problems on some job sites but not on most, » Therrien said. « There is a black market in many other parts of life because people want to enjoy the benefits without paying for them. »
The system was introduced in the mid-’70s to end violence and a major political confrontation over work on the huge James Bay hydro construction jobs.
But it appears to encourage illegal work activity – particularly during recessions when work is scarce. Economics is the driving force. Many tradesmen and contractors negotiate under-the-table deals at wages both can live with.
Laval University professor Pierre Frechette has calculated the black market is costing the Quebec economy $2.5 billion annually in lost wages, unpaid taxes and lost opportunities for businesses that play by the rules.
The Quebec Contractors Association, which represents all contractors in the system, estimates that up to 35 per cent of all construction work is illegal.