Commission of Inquiry into the Quality of
Condominium Construction in British Columbia
Submitted to the Lieutenant-Governor in Council
Government of British Columbia
by Dave Barrett, Commissioner
June 1998

Chapter Two: The Framework of
Residential Construction

VII. Labour Force

The Commission received many submissions on the poor quality of work performed in the construction of single- and multi-family buildings. This is true, not only in the Lower Mainland, but also on Vancouver Island and in the interior.

Testimony given by Strata Councils and individual condominium owners provide, in extensive detail, accounts of poor worker performances in many areas of the construction process, including carpentry, roofing, glazing, plastering, and painting.

Our condominium complex is 7 years old. It has been under reconstruction for 3 years. To date, our single income family has paid over $32,000 in special assessments for reconstruction and litigation costs. As I write this, our strata council is proposing a further $1,000,000 to continue (not complete) this reconstruction, our share is $7,400. The damage discovered during this reconstruction includes rotted support beams, dryer vents not vented to the exterior, nails hammered through piping, numerous code violations, and general poor workmanship. Its criminal and we are stuck paying for it."

Heather and Gord Santaga, Condo Owners

Pride in producing safe, quality housing has given way, much too often, to the hiring of unskilled labour; cutting comers at various stages of the building process; cutthroat competition; an underground cash economy; and too many occurrences of unreported, unethical practices. This situation is not the fault of the workers; rather, it is the developer or builder who is responsible for the skills of the people on site. The effect of pressured work schedules; lack of regard for skills and training; and a desire to keep wages low; has led to a downgrading of the caliber of work. This situation reflects badly on the entire industry.

"In our case, the concrete on a number of floors was poured incorrectly, resulting in some window openings being as much as 3/4" too small from floor to ceiling. Rather than disassembling the window units, cutting pieces smaller and reassembling the window to the correct dimension the window installer trimmed 3/4" off the bottom of the window. Moreover, instead of cutting the glass to fit, the contractor crammed the window into the opening, making it impossible to remove the glass without completely disassembling the window unit"

L.L. Wright, Condo Owner

Moreover, it appears that maintaining high standards of quality and passing the necessary skills and work habits onto the next generation, has become a relic of the past. The commitment to train young people in trades, as part of an apprenticeship-based method, has given way to developers and builders using apprentices as cheap labour. There is little intention of ensuring the training is completed and journeyperson status is achieved.

A number of builders, professional organizations, site workers, and representatives from government have expressed concern with this trend. Particularly concerned are legitimate housing construction operators who play by the rules and are, consequently, placed at a competitive disadvantage. Tradespeople, who take pride in their work and their abilities, are also frustrated by this trend because they are pressured into accepting less than adequate working conditions and arrangements.

"Instead today, contractors who break the law and employ unqualified persons are permitted to compete, unmolested by provincial or; municipal enforcement, with contractors who obey the law and employ only qualified persons. It should come as no surprise, unqualified tradespersons don't get paid as much as qualified tradespersons. It is also no surprise that both competence and quality have a price. It is entirely possible, given the expense of TQ'd tradespersons, some contractors may have hired cheap unqualified labour.

As long as there is no enforcement of the "compulsory trades" to employ qualified persons, how is it possible for the public to expect that buildings will be built without leaks?

In the meantime contractors who obey the laws of British Columbia are being driven from the construction industry because they cannot compete with contractors who disobey the law."

Dana M. Taylor, Mechanical Contractors Association of BC

Society, in most areas of working activity, demands some form of recognized and accepted qualifications as a necessary condition for providing goods and services. Every presenter before the Commission who addressed the issue, agreed that all people involved in the process of residential construction should have the necessary credentials and qualifications for his or her trade.

The necessary skills, appropriate training, and the opportunity to earn a decent living in the residential construction industry are prerequisites for quality work.

Even in areas where trade qualifications are compulsory, such as in roofing, plumbing, and electrical, there is rarely any checking of certifications. Over the years, more and more sub-contractors are employing people without the proper training, even when required to do so by law. The absence of work qualification inspection, as well as the absence of any access by workers to a third party -- in the event of unacceptable working standards, or pressure to employ unsafe or unethical work practices -- has led to a systematic deterioration in the quality of work.

A declining skill base and deteriorating work habits are not a function of union versus non-union. The Commission received numerous presentations which clearly showed that the problems of leaking buildings exist in both union and non-union projects. The lack of skills, and the absence of an environment conducive to employing good work habits, (even when the skills exist) is a symptom of a greater problem -- excessive competition and a cutthroat environment. Good developers, with a desire to operate on an ongoing basis, are faced with fly-by-night companies who bid down, not only the price of a project, but also its quality and eventually, the standard in the entire industry.

Time and again, the Commission heard that training, qualification, and certification does not require membership in a union.

"The Provincial Government should establish a system of builder and subtrade registration and certification ... (it) should take steps to strengthen the apprenticeship program for building trades in the province and establish a requirement for trades qualification in the building trades. The fact that many of the workers engaged in residential construction have no trades qualification is a concern. The difficulty that design professionals have had in assuming quality construction is directly related to the lack of knowledge and skill in the industry".

Tom Timm, Chief Inspector, City of Vancouver

One report received from industry was "Apprenticeship: A Construction Industry Perspective." This comprehensive survey was completed in April 1997 by a task force comprised of employers involved in all facets of the construction industry, with residential construction interests well represented.

This industry task force was established because of "increasing concern within the construction industry about the future direction and stability of the apprenticeship training system." The conclusions and recommendations reached by the task force support a stricter, more compliance-based, compulsory approach to trade qualifications. All but one of the seventeen organizations represented by the task force strongly support this position.

"Compulsory certification of trades must be supported with appropriate compliance enforcement measures including the following elements:

Apprenticeship: A Construction Industry Perspective

The area of education and qualifications for trades people has also been evaluated by the Safety Systems Implementation Advisory Group (IAG), established to advise the Minister of Municipal Affairs on the most appropriate and effective ways of implementing changes to BC's system of safety services (The Horizon Report). The IAG, made up of individuals from the housing construction industry made the following comments:

" should be mandatory for a developer or a contractor of single and multi-family structures to be registered, and to employ qualified persons to build single and/or multi-family housing. Similarly, designers should be registered and limited to preparing designs for which they are qualified, and public sector inspectors should be qualified to function as "safety inspectors"

... (these standards) should be enforced through province-wide registration and qualification mechanisms that will prevent individuals and corporations from performing work unless they are qualified."

It is clear that part of the goal to return quality and accountability to the residential building industry, is supporting and improving mandatory trades training and education, both at the skills development level and at the sub-contractor, business level. Mandatory skills and training requirements are essential components for any tradesperson trying to perform a quality job.

Currently, the following trades qualification certificates (TQ's) are compulsory before working in these areas of the industry: electrician, plumbing, roofing, refrigeration mechanic, sheetmetal worker, sprinkler fitters and installers, steam fitter-pipefitter, and power line technician. A trade is designated compulsory by regulation under section 13 of the Labour Act.

The Commission was surprised by the succession of presenters who testified that mandatory trades are not subject to enforcement. This is particularly disconcerting given the role that poor quality roofing has played in the condominium crisis.

  Recommendation #34: Immediate and definite steps be taken to ensure that all compulsory trades required by law to be on site in a residential project, be enforced.

As the Construction Industry Review Panel so accurately noted in its report of February 25, 1998:

"Those contractors who presently abide by the rules are at a serious economic disadvantage when they have to compete with other employers who show a blatant disregard for this requirement."

It is interesting to note that an automotive service technician, an automotive painter, motor vehicle body repairman (metal and paint), and a hair stylist are all compulsory trade designations in British Columbia. The Commission accepts the importance of skills related to these areas of expertise. What this Commission does not accept is that the trade skills involved in constructing a home -- which is the most important investment decision most people ever make -- are somehow less important than the mandatory skills related to auto repair and hair styling.

There are numerous recognized trades necessary to home building including: electrical, plumbing, gas and pipe fitting, roofing, sheet metal, carpentry, insulation, bricklaying, glazing, plastering, tile setting, dry walling, floor laying, iron working and painting. Of particular importance in this list is the carpentry trade, since the majority of foremen and site superintendents received their early experience as carpenters. As well, skills required for ensuring quality construction on building envelope design, is also of concern.

The following recommendations concerning workmanship standards and practices are provided to address this issue of skills training and job performance monitoring, as well as ensure the most effective functioning of the warranty program.

  Recommendation #35: That the Homeowner Protection Legislation include the authority for the Homeowner Protection Office to recommend compulsory trade certification related to multi-family residential construction.

  Recommendation #36: That any developer, builder, general contractor, or sub-trade, who employ compulsory trades to work on a residential construction site, must file a report listing the names and trade qualifications of all certified and apprentice trades on the job, and that this list form part of the necessary documentation to be provided to future strata councils and homeowners.

  Recommendation #37. That a system of inspection be designed whereby municipal inspectors and provincial inspectors, through the newly formed Homeowner Protection Office, enforce the employment of qualified building trades on site, and that a system of discipline be developed for employers violating the requirements for qualified trades on residential construction sites.


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Copyright © 1998: Government of the Province of British Columbia