Eric Bohne: Canadian steel industry needs protection from unfair foreign competition
Why would anyone risk losing a $5 billion a year industry that supports over 40,000 Canadian jobs?
It's hard to believe but Canada's steel fabrication industry—and British Columbia's—is seriously threatened by unfair competition from foreign producers, especially China.
And you don't have to look far to see local examples of foreign steel being used in taxpayer-supported projects here in B.C.
The Golden Ears Bridge in Maple Ridge was built with steel fabricated in China by Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Company—the same firm that got a $350 million contract to replace the fabled Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, sparking protests in the Unites States.
And Victoria's new $93 million Johnson Street Bridge—replacing the famous "blue bridge"—is also being constructed with $10 million in steel imported from China.
Some may argue that if Canadian steel fabricators can't compete they don't deserve contracts—but that's simply wrong.
British Columbia and Canada have some of the best steel fabrication companies and most highly-skilled workers in the world, producing amazing structures.
But they can't compete with foreign producers who have completely inadequate environmental standards, significant government subsidies and workers who are paid low wages with few human or labour rights or safety protection, let alone democratic freedoms.
That's unfair competition. What's also unfair is that our governments have not evaluated bids on an equal basis.
Taxpayers deserve to have the value of creating jobs and investment in Canada and the enormous revenue derived from taxes paid by workers and corporations in the steel fabrication industry calculated in making decisions on huge government projects.
Although I work with a union in this sector, the issue is not about unionization—no Canadian firm can win with fundamentally unfair competition.
In 2012, Canada imported $1 billion worth of steel from China, plus another $400 million from Japan and $300 million from South Korea.
That means tens of thousands of lost jobs in our own country, while we finance creating them in other lands.
The solution is very simple—when substantial taxpayer dollars are funding a major project, government should insist that municipal, provincial and national suppliers of goods and services like steel fabrication must be given preference over foreign companies.
And supporting local and national companies in a fair process does not violate existing trade agreements.
Here in B.C., the steel fabrication industry supports 5,000 direct and thousands more indirect jobs, with annual revenues of $1.5 billion.
Why would any government risk losing those jobs and the investment and taxes that come with it?
Unfortunately, no level of government in Canada has acted firmly on the challenge facing our industry—or that challenging other businesses and workers who face unfair foreign competition.
But the recent outrage at the Temporary Foreign Workers Program allowing companies to displace Canadians clearly indicates that the public is strongly in favour of protecting and creating jobs here at home, not exporting employment overseas.
And the problem is not confined to the public sector. Many private companies are using Chinese fabricated steel—in the oil sands in Alberta, here in B.C. at Rio Tinto Alcan's Kitimat huge smelter expansion and other projects across Canada.
Canadian steel fabricators can compete with any country, so long as the playing field is level. The new Port Mann Bridge, Rogers Arena, the Lions Gate Bridge refurbishment and the Richmond Speed Skating Oval all used steel fabricated in Canada.
The issue is not about restricting trade—it's about making it fair so that Canadian companies and workers have an equal chance at fabricating the steel needed to construct the bridges and buildings our country depends on.
Surely insisting on fair trade to guarantee jobs for Canadians is a worthwhile position for any government or politician to take.