What are community-benefits agreements — and why are activists fighting for them?

The Eglinton Crosstown LRT project has one. So does the Woodbine casino expansion. More infrastructure projects are adopting the agreements, and proponents say that’s leading to more equitable job sites and communities
By H.G. Watson - Published on Jul 23, 2019
Eglinton Crosstown LRT construction in Toronto
The framework agreement for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project indicates that Metrolinx should aim to have 10 per cent of trade and craft working hours performed by marginalized members of the community. (Fred Lum/Globe and Mail)

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By the time he was 18, Ahmed Abdi knew that he wanted to be a carpenter.

But he found it difficult to break into the construction industry. To get an apprenticeship, he had first to be accepted into a trade union or hired by a construction firm, which could then get him into a union. “It was like, ‘Come back tomorrow; come to an info session here,’” Abdi says. “[They] just give you the runaround.”

Abdi finally got his break, in 2016, thanks to the Eglinton Crosstown LRT.

He attended a Metrolinx information session about the project, which involves building light-rail transit along a 19-kilometre stretch of Eglinton Avenue, in Toronto. There, he found out that there were job opportunities available for locals who wanted to learn a trade (Abdi lives in Mount Dennis, the west-end neighbourhood where the line will terminate). When he told the representative from Carpenters Local 27 that he was looking for a job, Abdi says, “He said, ‘Come see me the next day.’ I [brought] a couple guys with me, showed up the appointment in the morning, and [he] signed us up. After five years of trying, my reaction was, ‘Wow. It just takes one email.’”

Abdi was able to join the union because of a community-benefit agreement negotiated by the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), which represents labour, educational, and community interests. The framework agreement sets hiring goals for Metrolinx, which, for the Eglinton Crosstown project, aims to have 10 per cent of trade and craft working hours performed by marginalized members of the community.

According to the Atkinson Foundation, the Eglinton Crosstown CBA, developed in 2012, “was to leverage this $5.3 billion infrastructure investment to create economic opportunities for residents from historically disadvantaged groups.” Jaime Robinson, Metrolinx’s acting chief of communications and public affairs, told TVO.org that 115 apprentices and journeypersons have been hired to work on the project. Another 152 have been hired to work in administrative, technical, and professional roles. Almost $500,000 was spent on procurement from social enterprise — organizations in communities along the LRT route that focus on local improvements — and $5.9 million on procurement from local businesses.

Since the finalization of the Eglinton Crosstown CBA, in 2016, several other CBA frameworks have been implemented across Ontario — including for the Finch West LRT, the West Park Healthcare Centre, and the Halton Region Consolidated Courthouse. Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals committed to ensuring that all major infrastructure projects in the province would have a CBA included by 2020.

Chelsea Dolan, director of communications at the Ministry of Transportation, told TVO.org via email that the Progressive Conservatives are working to deliver a CBA framework later this year. (The government’s More Homes, More Choice Act has raised concerns at TCBN: Michelle Francis, community-engagement manager, says that, although the act deals with land-use planning rather than major infrastructure projects, the limits it would place on community-benefits charges could restrict municipalities’ ability to provide core services and to leverage investments to support inclusive local economic growth.)

However, a bill making its way through the Senate may take CBAs nationwide: if Bill C-344, introduced by Liberal MP Ramesh Sangha, passes, it would give the minister of public services and procurement and accessibility the authority to require government contractors to provide information on the community benefits that could come from the project. (British Columbia already has a CBA framework in place.)

So what do CBAs do — and why have advocates fought so fiercely for them?

Breaking labour barriers

Abdi is, to the best of his knowledge, the first Somali-Canadian member of Carpenters Local 27 — a fact that shocked him, given how many Somali-Canadians call Toronto home. “[There are] a lot of youth that need jobs,” he says.

According to data collected by Statistics Canada in 2011, racialized people made up only 1.2 per cent of all apprentices in Ontario; Indigenous people counted for 1.5 per cent, women for 14.1 per cent, and people with disabilities for just 0.2 per cent.

“We see this as an untapped market that the construction industry can and should be looking at in terms of fulfilling skilled labour for communities,” says Rosemarie Powell, executive director of TCBN. The introduction of aspirational targets means that builders are encouraged to hire from groups that have historically been excluded from the construction industry.

Getting into the industry, however, is only the first step. For Abdi, the challenge now is to change the culture. “They are very high-demand jobs and very well-paying and definitely bring up your tax bracket and give you a new path in life,” he says. But he’s heard workers use racist and derogatory language and knows that that can come as a shock to people new to the job. “People say words that will make you want to get in a fight, right in your face,” he says. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.” (A representative from Carpenters Local 27 did not respond to TVO.org’s requests for comment.)

Abdi believes that the industry needs mentors who can show people the ropes — and a more diverse workforce to change the culture from the inside. And he’s contributing to that cause himself: he’s helped about 30 of his peers get into Carpenters Local 27.

Giving the community a voice

In its former life, Kodak Building 9, in Mount Dennis, served as a recreation centre for Kodak employees. Even though it had long been abandoned, locals weren’t prepared to give up on it so easily.

“They did not want to see that building torn down, because it was, for them, a historic site in their community,” says Powell. As part of the CBA, TCBN and community members advocated to have the building preserved. Metrolinx moved the entire four-storey structure, and then, after a foundation was laid, moved it back — the bottom floor will become one of the entrances to Mount Dennis Station; the top floors will become community-use spaces.

When you tailor CBAs to specific community needs, they’re more likely to be successful, says Kiran Alwani, a policy analyst at the Mowat Centre. “Communities always want, for example, to make sure that their voices are heard, and they’re not just being consulted or engaged in the traditional sense, but that they are engaged for the process,” she says. In effect, the agreement depends on building a long-term relationship — meaning there will never be a one-size-fits-all CBA.

The local community spent almost 10 years advocating for a CBA to be attached to the Woodbine casino expansion, and Toronto city council approved one last year. Locals identified a number of key needs, including workforce participation: 20 per cent of new hires must live within the federal riding of Etobicoke-North, and 20 per cent must be from equity-seeking groups anywhere in the city. And, as in the case of the Eglinton Crosstown project, 10 per cent of trade and craft working hours must be performed by community members or equity-seeking groups. One Toronto Gaming, which operates a number of gaming facilities in the GTA, will also contribute $5 million toward the construction of a child-care centre for the area. 

Powell says that TCBN drew on the experience gained from negotiating the Eglinton Crosstown CBA to develop both the Woodbine agreement and one for the Finch West LRT. “This was negotiated by having the real conversation with the stakeholders and using the lessons learned that we have from the first project,” she says. “And we were able to innovate on top of what we had.”

Creating economic benefits

Community benefits are supplemental benefits, notes Alwani — they complement the benefits the community will already receive through new infrastructure. So what’s in it for a company or a government?

Powell sees CBAs as a way to engender goodwill, citing the preservation of Kodak Building 9 as an example. “If that community-benefit process or negotiations process wasn’t there, that building would’ve been destroyed,” she says. “And there would have been a lot of ill will.”

Then there are the economic benefits that come from putting money directly into the community. CBAs often include social-procurement clauses, which ensure that local businesses are used for such services as on-site catering and flyer printing.

Robinson says that Metrolinx is very pleased with the results that have been achieved so far. “Metrolinx and Crosslinx [the consortium that is building the Eglinton Crosstown] wouldn’t have achieved what we have achieved in terms of hiring of local jobs … if it wasn’t for the partnership that we’ve got with TCBN, United Way, and other government agencies,” he says. “I mean, it really is a collaborative project, and I think it really speaks volumes to when community works with government partners and local citizens to [see] what could be achieved to help people who are marginalized, who are disadvantaged, and really help give them a leg up.”

One day, Abdi may himself be in a position to inject more money into the community. He is close to finishing his apprenticeship hours, and, after he does, he’ll be a full-fledged carpenter. When that happens, he hopes to open his own carpentry contracting business. “That way,” he says, “I can get a lot of guys from the community or could just hire them and take them to the prospective unions and say, ‘Hi, I have this company. I want this guy to work for me. Can you sign him up?’ And they’ll do it.”

“The more diversity you have in [skilled trades] … the more impactful for the greater society,” Abdi says. “I’m just trying to make my part in it.”

Correction:  An earlier version of this story indicated that the Toronto Community Benefits Network spent 10 years advocating for a community-benefits agreement for the Woodbine casino expansion. In fact, it was a local community organization that intially led the advocacy work. TVO.org regrets the error.

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