P.E.I. workers have for years had the lowest pay in the country, and the construction industry is one of the larger contributors to that low-pay problem.
According to Statistics Canada, construction is the fifth-largest employment sector on the Island, with about 8.5 per cent of the province’s jobs in that industry. It is also, when compared to the national average, the worst paid among those top five. Weekly earnings for workers were 32 per cent below the national average in 2021.
That’s twice the difference for all industries combined, which is 16 per cent.
Sam Sanderson, general manager of the Construction Association of P.E.I., said that is changing.
“We’re seeing some huge increases on our end with the jobs that we’re posting,” said Sanderson.
“In order to attract that new talent, employers are really starting to realize that they need to up the salary, not only the salary but the benefits and that as well.”
Those increases have been driven by a high demand for workers, with an estimated 1,000 vacancies in construction.
A path to higher wages
There has been some ground made up by the industry in the last two years.
While overall pay for Islanders slipped back slightly from 2019, in construction it rose 12 per cent on P.E.I. compared to 7.8 per cent nationally.
Craig Walsh of United Food and Commercial Workers sees a quicker route to higher wages: more unionized workers.
“In the construction industry, where it’s very limited unionization, the rates are just terribly low,” said Walsh.
“Most of my tradespeople that are unionized are making close to, or north of, $30 an hour.”
Assuming a 40-hour week, the average hourly wage in construction on P.E.I. is about $25.75.
A years-long process
There are a couple reasons for the low unionization rate in construction, said Walsh.
One is the sector’s fragmented nature. Often tradespeople on P.E.I. are encouraged to start their own businesses once they get qualifications, Walsh said, and that leads to a lot of small companies spread around the province.
In addition, he said the process of certifying a union can take years.
“There is a huge number of delays that can be thrown in your way by the employer on the legal front, and there seems to be little mechanism for the labour board to power through those,” said Walsh.
“That whole time, the people who supported you are either dealing with an employer who is at times very anti-union and has total control over what their day-to-day operations are. And then those people will eventually cycle through, and if the employer knows what he’s doing he makes sure that the new people he hires have no support for the union.”
Playing catch up
The Construction Association of P.E.I. does not take a position on unionization.
About 13 per cent of the industry is unionized, said Sanderson, and the association is encouraging members to make jobs, whether unionized or not, more attractive, with new benefits, improved work-life balance as well as higher pay.
Many of the non-unionized companies in the province are offering wages equivalent to unionized shops, he said.
The industry can only move so quickly, said Sanderson. Inflation has been adding to the price of building materials at the same time wages have been increasing.
“The customers and owners can’t afford that steep increase in the cost of doing business, with addition to the added material costs,” he said.
While Sanderson expects the gap in pay to continue to narrow, he said it is unlikely Island wages would ever catch up with those being offered in parts of Alberta and Ontario.