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Editorial: We aren't enlightened, we're just short of workers

Will the new Builders Code help women and other minorities survive in the trades? Time will tell.

Race and gender still provoke ostracism, bullying, harassment, hazing … call it what you will, it is all too common, and it creates a toxic workplace, especially for those at whom it’s directed.  In some cases, it’s potentially deadly, as in the recent case of a young Black construction worker in Nova Scotia who was shot with a nail gun after enduring other incidents of race-based harassment on the job:  https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/nova-scotia-human-rights-commission-discrimination-racism-1.5053237

Sometimes the pressure can cause a bullied worker to react – and get fired:

“Measures to fight sexual harassment in an environment that is incredibly sexist can backfire. I’ve only seen one worker ever fired for harassment, and it was a Black woman. She had been persistently bothered by this group of masons, vile things were said to her, she had things thrown at her. After weeks of this, she finally reacted and it was her that got fired for harassment while in fact she was the victim of racist and gendered bullying. The harassment claim became part of the harassment.”   (By Megan Kinch, from Dialog News)  http://dialognews.ca/2018/03/08/uphill-battle-for-women-in-trades/

Is there hope on the horizon?  A year ago, the BC government and the Vancouver Regional Construction Association heralded the development of  “a range of programs designed to help women working or entering a career in the building trades.”

 “It’s no secret that women in the construction trades face unnecessary challenges,” BC Construction Association President Chris Atchison said in the government news release. “The retention rates for tradeswomen are notoriously low, and employers know they need to do better. This funding unites a powerful group of industry partners with a laser focus on improving retention of women, and I see it as a very real opportunity for progress.”

A year later, on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019,  the BC government and the BC Construction Association announced a new Builders Code, “a comprehensive program that aims to address B.C.’s skilled labour shortage by reducing harassment, bullying and hazing on construction worksites. The Builders Code defines an Acceptable Worksite and provides employers with tools, training and resources to improve and promote safe and productive worksite behavior.”  [Emphasis added.]

Well, it’s a step forward.  Before a problem can be addressed,  it must be recognized.  And it’s fair to say that many people seem to think that because it’s 2019, and we’re all so enlightened, there’s no problem. But guess what? – we’re NOT all so enlightened, and the new Builders Code recognizes that fact. “Unnecessary challenges” is a euphemistic phrase to encompass the afore-mentioned bullying, hazing, harassment and general nastiness that many women apprenticing or working in trades endure.

Will the new Builders Code help reduce harassment, bullying and hazing of women and other  minorities working and training in construction trades?  In its press release, the BC Construction Association explains,

“The Builders Code expands the definition of construction safety beyond physical hazards to include stress or distraction caused by discrimination, bullying, hazing or harassment. A Builders Code worksite will seek to be free from behaviour that threatens the stability of work conditions including job performance, health, well-being, safety, productivity and the efficiency of workers.

“At its core, the Builders Code seeks to improve the retention of tradeswomen who are working in B.C.’s construction sector. Project partners quickly recognized that to be successful, the Builders Code could not single out tradeswomen for special consideration. Every person working on a worksite is affected by stress and distraction caused by bullying, hazing and harassment.” 

It's telling that this initiative hasn’t happened until BC’s labour force faces a shortage of nearly 8,000 skilled trades workers.  Why did it take a labour shortage for the government and employers finally to take steps to reduce the disgusting behaviour that has driven women and other minorities out of otherwise promising and well-paying jobs?  (Women may not be a “minority” in the general population, but they are a tiny minority in construction work.)

Why has it taken so long?

My problem with the new Builders Code is that it has taken far too long for industry and government to address that pervasive culture of abusive conduct.  In the mid-1980s, a friend worked for Kwantlen College in Vancouver in a program designed to encourage women to enter trades.  The problem was obvious then – over thirty years ago; and in those thirty years, no one cared enough to address it. That’s my beef: that it took a labour shortage to bring about any measures to address appalling job-site behaviour aimed at minorities.  Suddenly, “worker retention” is important enough that it’s worthwhile to address common human-rights abuses that have been ignored until now.   

Women in Trades

It took far too long, but now is the time for women to enter trades – not only is there a demand for skilled trades workers, but also there will finally be  a system to support and protect women and other often-targeted groups.  Women who are interested can check this website for Women in Trades Training.

To find out a bit more about the new Builders Code, check the website:  https://www.builderscode.ca/resources/