Flickr/Creative Commons photo by John F. Novotny.
A Canadian construction worker on a pipeline project in Alberta. Building trades leaders in the country fear a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership will lead to less job opportunities for skilled construction workers.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership had to be renegotiated after the United States pulled out of the controversial trade agreement in January 2017. Yet, even under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pro-labor government, the proposed deal remains a concern for Canada’s skilled construction workers.

Canadian International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, the country's lead negotiator of the revised TPP
Flickr/Creative Commons photo by Canada China Business Council.

Newly-renamed, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership was agreed to earlier this year, but it relies too heavily on foreign workers and a system that has hurt working families in the past, First District International Representative Matt Wayland said.

“Bottom line, this is work that is going to be done in Canada and Canadian workers are going to be overlooked,” Wayland said. “The jobs, skills and training that people bring to the table doesn’t do any good if a company is bringing in foreign workers and Canadian workers are home collecting unemployment insurance.”

Representatives from Canada and 10 other Pacific nations signed the new agreement in March. It goes into effect when it is formally ratified by at least six of the countries.

Canadian International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has stopped short of calling for a specific timeframe, but it is believed that proponents want to see it ratified by the end of 2019.

The IBEW and other trade unions will fight that unless the use of foreign workers is addressed, Wayland said.

They have a much better relationship with Trudeau’s Liberal government than the Conservatives that preceded it and negotiated the first version of the TPP. Still, that has not yet led to an agreement that puts Canadian workers first.

“I’m hoping that we’ll get regulations here in Canada that will address our concerns,” Wayland said. “But that has not happened yet.”

In a report submitted to Parliament, officials from Canada’s Building Trades Unions – which includes the IBEW – note they support the use of foreign workers on a limited basis and a “strong, diverse, non-discriminatory skilled migration program,” but view the CPTPP’s provisions for entry as overly permissive and leading to unsafe working conditions due to language barriers.

Other concerns include international workers’ understanding of current building and electrical codes and the training they have received, which often isn’t the same quality of the apprenticeship programs Canadian skilled trades workers have gone through. The provisions regarding foreign workers are included in Chapter 12 of the new agreement, now commonly referred to as the CPTPP.

“There is nothing progressive about the CPTPP and the labor mobility provisions in Chapter 12,” First District International Vice President William Daniels said. “The IBEW has expressed our concerns about this trade agreement with the Liberal Government since it was elected in 2015. Needless to say, I’m disappointed that there were no changes made in the text of Chapter 12.

“We will continue to oppose this trade deal as long as those provisions are included,” Daniels said.

The number of foreign workers admitted annually under the federal government’s International Mobility Program increased from 40,000 in 1995 to 250,000 in 2015, according to the Building Trades report. That is about the same time the North America Free Trade Agreement – another contentious accord – has been in effect. Foreign workers must have “specified knowledge” of a skill, but the federal government allows companies to determine what that specified knowledge is.

“There is literally zero oversight,” Wayland said. “The extent of it is someone from the government calling a company and asking, ‘Do your workers meet the requirements?’ They answer yes and that’s the end of it.”

The proposed criteria for admitting foreign workers under the new agreement is even more lax, the report said. It would drive down wages for all workers and take jobs away from Canadians able to staff them, including in the electrical industry.

There are loopholes that even corporations not headquartered in one of the 11 participating countries could take advantage of. The report notes that a company like the ACS Group, a worldwide construction group based in Spain – which is not part of the CPTPP – has a subsidiary based in Mexico, which is a party to the agreement.

Because of that, the company could secure work in Canada and import a largely Philippine-based work force it sends all over the world, with little attempt made to ensure it meets the standards of skilled Canadian construction workers.

Daniels urges IBEW members to contact their representatives in the House of Commons and ask them to vote against ratification until language is inserted that better protects the country’s working families and ensures work is done safely and at a high level of skill.

“We’ve heard some talk about meeting our concerns, or leaving enforcement to the provinces, but right now, nothing is in writing,” Wayland said. “If they don’t put those things in writing, a future government could remove it. When it’s in the agreement, it becomes permanent.”

Other countries that have signed on to the CPTPP besides Canada and Mexico are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Click here to see Winnipeg, Manitoba, Local 2085 member and journeyman wireman Daniel Blaikie, who represents the Elmwood-Transcona Riding, question Champagne about the CPTPP during debate in the House of Commons. Blaikie is a member of the New Democratic Party.