Doug Ford government scraps diversity hiring targets for transit projects

UPDATE: Reversed!

The Ontario government will no longer include hiring targets for disadvantaged groups in its agreements for provincial transit projects, a reversal of a groundbreaking policy intended to deliver jobs to marginalized communities where new lines are built.

Advocates warn the decision will undo years of progress toward bringing women, people of colour, and Indigenous and Black residents into the workforce, and raises questions about whether Premier Doug Ford’s subway program is eligible for federal funding.

The hiring targets were first included in a so-called community benefits agreement the previous Ontario Liberal government reached for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT in 2016, which was hailed at the time as setting a precedent that would inject funding, training and employment into neighbourhoods in need.

But the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), a coalition of labour and community groups, says the targets are being left out of plans already underway for Ontario’s $28.5-billion subway program, which consists of the Ontario Line, Yonge North Subway Extension, Scarborough Subway Extension, and Eglinton West LRT.

Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for transit construction in the GTA, will be “on the wrong side of history” if it scraps the hiring thresholds and other key aspects of the benefits framework, said Rosemarie Powell, executive director of TCBN.

The group is expressing “deep concern” about the province’s change of heart, which it says will undermine a program that has helped ensure people who get opportunities through public infrastructure investment “come from and reflect the diversity of local communities.”

Metrolinx is overseen by Ontario Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney. Asked why the province is dropping the hiring targets, the minister’s spokesperson Dakota Brasier said the province “will continue to facilitate a pathway for local communities to develop the skills and qualifications needed to find good-paying jobs in the sector.”

She said Ontario’s “historic” transit plans are on course to “generate thousands of jobs, create more connections for people across the province and boost our economy.”

The community benefits agreement signed by the province, Metrolinx, TCBN and the company building the Crosstown LRT six years ago set a target that 10 per cent of work hours for the project go to local groups that have historically faced employment barriers, like racialized residents, women and newcomers.

The target wasn’t a legal obligation under the LRT contract and was described as “aspirational,” but the signatories pitched it as a meaningful way to give hundreds of people from groups traditionally shut out of the construction industry a path to a decent career.

The Ontario government of the day said the agreement would serve as a framework for future projects, and a similar deal was struck for the Finch West LRT.

In addition to not including the 10 per cent hiring target in agreements for the new provincial subways, TCBN says Metrolinx hasn’t committed to other measures around consultation, transparency and local procurement that represent “a minimum standard” for a community benefits agreements.

In a Feb. 11 letter to the group, Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster confirmed the agency is taking a “different approach” to community benefits, but one that it believes will still deliver “the same objectives” and “meaningful change.”

Although it doesn’t include hiring targets, Verster wrote that Metrolinx’s strategy will provide local employment opportunities, require contractors to develop and report on apprenticeship and workforce development plans, and direct contractors to develop “shop local” campaigns and host trade shows to connect employers with job-seekers.

The agency is also committed to making public realm improvements and in some cases could provide amenities like community centres or affordable housing as part of transit projects.

Metrolinx spokesperson Fannie Sunshine said the “broader” approach will give the agency the “flexibility” required “to meaningfully engage” with communities, and allow it to “identify better opportunities.”

Powell acknowledged implementing the original agreement hasn’t been easy. Crosslinx, the private consortium building the Crosstown, hasn’t reached the 10 per cent hiring goal, and is instead hovering around five per cent, according to TCBN. A spokesperson for Crosslinx said she didn’t have up-to-date figures.

But Powell said Metrolinx has been a good partner on the benefits program to date, and she had expected the agency to address problems with the strategy, not weaken it.

“Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she said.

TCBN also points out that when the federal Liberal government announced more than $10 billion in financial support for Ford’s subway program in May 2021, it said the funding was dependent on the province satisfying a number of conditions, including community benefits agreements and “meeting employment thresholds for under-represented communities including Black, Indigenous, people of colour, and women.”

Sunshine said Metrolinx’s position is that the workforce development plans included in its new approach “will help to enable federal requirements.”

Zoltan Csepregi, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Canada, said community benefits agreements are still a condition of the funding, and the federal government will “work collaboratively with the government of Ontario to ensure that Metrolinx upholds these conditions.”

Source: Doug Ford government scraps diversity hiring targets for transit projects

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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