"Leveraging Local Labour" - Novae Res Urbis

Friday, January 29, 2021

NRU Publishing

Marc Mitanis

Amid city budget deliberations, dozens of community organizations, labour groups, and industry partners are asking the City of Toronto to set more ambitious hiring targets in its Community Benefits Framework to maximize economic opportunities for local equity- seeking groups. But the city says back-end infrastructure for the framework needs to be developed before universal hard targets for hiring from within these communities can be achieved.

The Community Benefits Framework was adopted in 2019, with an aim to maximize the city’s procurement, real estate transaction, and financial incentive levers to create social and economic development opportunities for the communities in which projects are being planned.
The city currently has four active community benefits initiatives— the Social Procurement Policy and Program, the Rexdale-Casino Woodbine Community Benefits Agreement, the Housing Now Initiative, and the Imagination, Manufacturing, Innovation and Technology Program (IMIT).

Community benefits agreements have become an increasingly common way for the city to increase the workforce participation of equity seeking populations— which include racialized communities, women, low-income individuals, immigrants, people with disabilities, and 2SLGBTQ people—on major public infrastructure projects. For example, the community benefits agreement established with One Toronto Gaming for expanded gaming at Woodbine Racetrack sets targets of 40 per cent local hiring, 50 percent of employees having full-time positions, and a $5 million contribution towards a community child care centre.

A marked rise in public investment for new infrastructure amid a shortage of skilled trade workers in construction is stimulating the development of community benefits agreements across the country. Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario president Mike Yorke said community benefits agreements allow the construction industry to connect with new talent.

“Developing the next generation is fundamental to what we do as an organization. We’re an organization that is seeing a lot of retirees and
we’re seeing a growth of the industry,” Yorke told NRU. “So, it’s a win-win scenario to partner with the city on community benefits and reach out to the next generation and develop those linkages with communities that had been underserved and maybe had been excluded from the construction industry in the past.”

In a report received by the city’s executive committee on January 27, staff identify that the Community Benefits Framework—currently in
the development and testing stage—requires additional back-end infrastructure to guide the implementation of current and future community benefits initiatives.

The Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) says the city needs to do more to ensure the framework is effective in providing equitable opportunities for marginalized communities. At the January 27 executive committee meeting, TCBN asked the city to require community benefits agreements for all large-scale capital projects and to set a 10 percent minimum hard target for equity hiring.

“We must have a target that we’re all working towards,” TCBN executive director Rosemarie Powell told NRU. “We believe that it’s essential
that we set a basic minimum equity hiring target on these projects. We think that if we focused on the larger projects of over $50 million, it’ll be easier to manage and we can really have some significant outcomes from it.”

Powell said the construction industry has a long history of being exclusionary to particular communities, and that 10 percent should be the bare minimum target for local, equity-based hires in a city as diverse as Toronto, where over half of the population is non-white.

 “The city has huge power of the purse when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars on development and urban infrastructure projects. We want them to use that power to make some demands on the industry to change from within,” Powell told NRU. “If we can’t demand that the construction industry reflect the diversity of the local community and the city, I think that’s a real failure of leadership.”  

Common in the United States, community benefits agreements have been employed as an effective tool to diversify the workforce in the construction industry, said Powell. “When you look at the jurisdictions in the United States that have done this, we see [equity hiring] targets upwards of 40 per cent,” Powell told NRU. “That’s what we’re trying to really make the case for. And that’s why over 120 community organizations and labour and industry partners are coming together to drive this message home to our elected officials.”

City of Toronto Social Development, Finance and Administration Division policy development officer April Lim said the Community Benefits Framework is a made-in- Toronto approach, and that stakeholders in the trades have told the city that a universal hard target should not be supported until appropriate back-end infrastructure can be developed.

The city has project- based community benefits requirements in over 120 contracts. Under the Social Procurement Program, 54 city contracts include workforce development targets requiring that 5 to 10 percent of construction hours be worked by registered apprentices from equity-seeking groups. Lim said the Community Benefits Framework is built on the notion that hard targets are best practice. But the targets established for the existing 54 city contracts are not being met, which Lim attributes to the lack of back-end infrastructure.

“The Community Benefits Framework aims to maximize the use of city authority or levers to create inclusive economic development and one of the ways to do this is to insert hard targets for hiring in city contracts. But we need to connect with that ecosystem of workforce development experts out there—the ones who train candidates and the ones who provide employment support to candidates—so that they
know what job opportunities are coming down the pipeline on city contracts and can prepare their job seeker clients in advance and ensure that job matching can take place in time,” Lim told NRU.

Lim said coordinated approaches to local and social hiring that connects employers, job seekers, employment agencies, and unions is an essential component of the back-end infrastructure required. Lim added that a monitoring and evaluation framework that guides disaggregated data collection and analysis is essential so that the city can track the impact being created across the Community Benefits Framework. Lim said “how-to” protocols also need to be in place to guide the city and its stakeholders through the process.

“What are employers that now have these contract requirements and hard targets expected to do? Who do they hire from? What are those
employment service agencies and training programs that are going to be connected to feed their candidates to these employers?” asked Lim. “And what are their roles and responsibilities? How do we define equity-seeking groups? How do we set hard targets? What is the process to set hard targets? How do we expand the pool of diverse and local suppliers so that when we set local and social procurement targets, there are actually suppliers, vendors, and businesses out there who can meet these contracts?”

Lim said that once the back- end infrastructure is in place, a universal 10 percent hard target for equity hiring could be implemented, in addition to existing project-based targets. The 2021 recommended operating budget includes half a million dollars in funding for six temporary staff positions starting in April 2021 and ending in December 2023 to begin the design and testing of back-end infrastructure.

Yorke said the identification of universal hard targets would add predictability to the process. “Contractors want to know what the benchmarks are, what the criteria is, and then they move forward on that basis,” Yorke told NRU. “Contractors don’t want to get into individual negotiations with the city or other agencies on a case-by-case basis. They’re much more comfortable when they know the lay of the land and what the rules are.”

Powell agreed, adding that a universal target would eliminate the “administrative burden” of having to determine a target to meet. “In [a contractor’s] request for proposal, they’ll see that this is going to be a requirement, and they’ll figure it out. And then, they don’t have to be doing this back-and-forth. What they need is a level playing field, and to understand that what is being asked of them is the same thing that is being asked of their competitors.”

Toronto Environmental Alliance campaigns director Heather Marshall told NRU that hard targets are critical in giving industry signals about where the government expects the city to be in the future. Marshall said there is a clear connection between community benefits and climate action, and that public dollars can be leveraged to retrofit buildings and create renewable energy projects and green jobs. Marshall said the tradespeople working on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT—the first large-scale infrastructure project in Ontario to include a community benefits program—is an example of how to build a low-carbon city by transforming the transportation sector.

Marshall said the TransformTO climate action plan estimates that the city needs to invest approximately $60 billion by 2050 to be low-
carbon. “We want to see that public money invested in green capital projects that also serve to benefit local communities and Black, Indigenous, and people of colour populations who have been largely left out of the growing green economy,” Marshall told NRU. “In addition to a global pandemic, we are still in the midst of a climate crisis, and that is more of a slow-burn emergency, compared to a health pandemic. Both of these crises are working in tandem to really put a lot of serious risk on the backs of marginalized communities who have actually been contributing the least to climate change.”

Lim added that the Community Benefits Framework is especially critical now as COVID-19 continues to exacerbate socioeconomic inequities.
“The Community Benefits Framework has significant potential to contribute to the city’s ‘build back better’ agenda during COVID-19,” Lim told NRU. “COVID-19 has really put a spotlight on community benefits initiatives as a way to connect inclusive economic recovery objectives with opportunities for Indigenous, Black, and equity-seeking communities.”

At its January 27 meeting, the executive committee voted to direct that the chief procurement officer aspire to an annual 10 percent increase
in the number of vendors on the city’s diverse supplier list, with a focus on increasing representation of Black- and Indigenous-owned businesses. The committee also voted to have city staff consult with the Toronto District School Board in order to have students placed on job sites in Toronto’s publicly-funded construction projects, and to explore a minimum hard hiring target for equity-seeking groups in construction across all large- scale infrastructure projects.

The committee’s recommendations will be considered by city council at its February 2 meeting. A progress update report on the design and testing of the Community Benefits Framework and a review of the Social Procurement Program are both expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2022.

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Posted with permission of the publisher of NRU Publishing Inc. Original article first appeared in Novae Res Urbis – Toronto, Vol. 25, No. 4, Friday, January 29, 2021.