Eric, a young construction worker from Gatineau, Quebec recently spent 24 days in jail. His crime? He worked without a permit, was fined $595.68, but couldn’t pay it.
Eric’s not alone. Thousands of construction workers in Quebec have faced fines or imprisonment for the crime of working without a permit in Quebec’s highly regulated construction industry. According to a report prepared by Laval-based lawyer Roger Bedard, 34,000 infractions were registered in 1984. Of these, 6,155 workers were ordered to appear in court. In 1995, 11,000 court proceedings were filed against Quebec construction workers.
In all parts of Canada, unions have amassed a great deal of coercive power through the closed shop arrangement. But the power to control workers by union-friendly government bureaucracies has reached truly absurd proportions in Quebec.
Bedard reports that collective bargaining has really not taken place in Quebec since the enactment of Bill 290, the Construction Industrial Labour Relations Act, adopted in 1968. Instead, all major labour relations decisions in the Quebec construction industry have been made by the provincial cabinet, while the powerful Construction Office, directed by a council of five members, is responsible for overseeing this industry. It does so with a passion for control.
First of all, every worker in the construction industry must, as a condition of employment, belong to a recognized building trade union. But that is only one condition. Every worker must also register with the Construction Office and obtain a work authorization card (permit). No one is allowed to work without such a permit.
Thus the Construction Office is a major regulator of the labour market by controlling the number of work permits it issues. In 1982, it cancelled the permits of 32,400 workers because they had not registered 2,000 hours of work per year over the previous two years. An uproar of public protest forced the Office to back down and restore permits for 15,000, which still left some 17,000 out in the cold.
This double-barreled monopoly control sits like a dead weight on the Quebec construction industry. But some serious “leaking,” in the form of a thriving underground construction economy, especially in home building and renovations, has developed over the years. Workers, however, need to be constantly on their guard for government agents as they struggle to eke out a living.
Another negative consequence, at least in the “official” sector, is the extremely high cost of wages. Bedard reports that a carpenter earns $22.00 per hour plus $12.00 per hour in fringe benefits. Given the state of the Quebec economy and the prevailing wage levels in the rest of Canada and the United States, these wages are unsustainable.
Predictably, where unions and the Construction Office have been able to impose their control, construction activity dwindles and bankruptcies skyrocket. Bedard writes that the average life expectancy of a construction company in Quebec is 12 years. And because of extravagant wage costs, the construction of houses and apartments is priced out of range for the ordinary wage earner.
What can be done about these oppressive and economically destructive practices? In theory, that’s not a difficult question to answer. But the key is whether the courage and political will exist to bring about the necessary changes. Social engineering comes easily to the powerbrokers in Quebec, and they are not likely to readily give up control.
But there are some signs of change. Public resentment is mounting against these high-handed tactics. Employers and employees have combined their efforts and are lodging an appeal to the Superior Court (Hull Division) for a judgement against what is claimed to be “ultra vires, unconstitutional and flagrant violations of Canada’s and Quebec’s Charters of rights and freedoms.” Much will ride on the outcome of this court case.
But with or without the support of the courts, the Quebec construction industry is crying out for radical surgery. What desperately needs to be restored is respect for the elementary freedom of choice and the dignity of employers and employees.
In the long term, such state intrusion will have a ruinous impact on Quebec society. Ordinary law-abiding people—who only want a chance to earn a living—will become increasingly cynical and disrespectful of the law and government.
Unions, too, better watch out. Totalitarian control will give them and collective bargaining a bad name. Cumulatively, these abuses will serve to further weaken the institutions that are indispensable in a free society.
One thing is certain. If the distinctiveness of Quebec consists of such things as the “unique” arrangements in Quebec’s construction industry, its citizens are ill served. It will merely confirm the suspicion that behind the separatist movement lurks a totalitarian impulse driven by those who still believe in state-delivered salvation.
It is still possible that the protests of those who rebel against these dictatorial practices will prevail. One can only hope that they will.