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June 2014

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Ontario Tories Target Trades College

Ontario's highest regulatory body for the skilled trades could end up on the chopping block if Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak forms the next provincial government.

Hudak vowed to abolish the Ontario College of Trades in a speech earlier this year, saying it was a bureaucratic obstacle to young people getting jobs in construction.

"The College of Trades is Ontario's newest bureaucracy, which taxes both trades people and employers hundreds of dollars a year in 'membership fees' that are just another tax on businesses that form the backbone of local economies," according to the Tories' website.

Established last year by Premier Kathleen Wynn's Liberal government, with support from the New Democrats, the college is a self-regulating association that maintains professional standards for dozens of skilled trades, including electricians and pipe-fitting.

"It's not any different from a medical college or bar association," said John Grimshaw, executive secretary treasurer of the IBEW Construction Council of Ontario, which represents 15,000 members throughout the province.

Ontario has required formal licensing for most trades since the 1960s, but these rules were often ignored by low-road contractors and employers who knowingly hired unqualified workers for construction projects.

"There was open flaunting of the law," Grimshaw said. "The government wasn't doing anything about it."

The IBEW, along with other unions, employers and public officials, lobbied for the college to ensure that every construction project in Ontario was staffed by trained professional workers.

"Customers should feel confident that the people they hire meet provincial standards when it comes to training," Grimshaw said. "It's a quality and safety issue."

The College of Trades has the authority to declare a trade "compulsory." To work in a compulsory trade, an individual must produce a certificate of qualification and pay a $120 annual fee. More than 20 trades are considered compulsory.

The Tories' new position is the result of heavy lobbying by the nonunion Ontario Electric League as well as the party's sharp right turn on unions. "Many of the league's contractors are some of worst abusers of the system," Grimshaw said.

Last year, leaked internal documents revealed that Hudak was planning to make repealing the Rand formula and instituting a Canadian version of right-to-work one of his top legislative priorities.

Public backlash and unrest in his caucus forced him to back off right-to-work, but critics say Hudak's attacks on the College of Trades are just the latest volley against unions by the Conservatives.

Windsor Local 773 Business Manager Karl Lovett says the College of Trades is vital to maintaining high standards for the trade in his jurisdiction.

"Our members don't mind paying the $120 because they know it means the government is making sure the proper trades are doing proper work," he said.

He says that he has seen too many low-road contractors use non-electricians to do electrical work.

"If the college was gone, it would be devastating for the organized building trades," he said. "It would create an industry-wide race to the bottom."

A growing blue-collar skills shortage across Canada has many policymakers looking at different approaches to training and recruitment.

Grimshaw says that Hudak's is the wrong approach when it comes to construction recruitment.

"He thinks that throwing out all the rules and throwing as many workers into the industry regardless of the skills or training is the way to go," he said. "Flooding the market with unqualified workers feeds the underground economy and increases the chances of accidents."