Queen's Park: New trades regulator a bad idea

Members of the profession may find it amusing, but many of the 600,000 trades workers in Ontario aren’t laughing at what they see as a stealthy tax.

Lawyers, of course, are part of a self-regulated profession with lots of experience paying fees to maintain their standing and right to practise. Interestingly, human resources professionals are about to join them with the passage of Bill 32 last month, the Registered Human Resources Professionals Act.

For the trades, it’s all new and they’re not happy about the prospect of paying $120 a year to the Ontario College of Trades.

It in turn is a child of the Ontario College of Trades and Apprenticeship Act.

The college has 16 objectives, including regulating, governing, and establishing qualification standards; issuing certificates; maintaining a public register; determining apprentice ratios; and compliance.

The levies replace the previous registration fee of $60 every three years and the establishment of the college also sets the stage for enforcement. It has hired 40 inspectors of the 120 planned in total to enforce the act by, for example, shutting down unlicensed trades and perhaps ferreting out the underground economy where workers do various jobs for cash.

It all blew up a couple of weeks ago when barbers complained they’d have to learn how to cut, style, and dye women’s hair since the system was lumping them in with hairstylists. The college says it’s all a misunderstanding and notes the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities is reviewing how to categorize barbers.

This is all happening now because the college is up and running and demanding money before it flexes its regulatory muscles among the 22 compulsory and 134 voluntary trades.

The compulsory trades include electricians, auto mechanics, and heavy equipment operators. Volunteer registrants include chefs, assistant cooks, grooms, harness makers, native artists, and special events co-ordinators.

Critics argue the college is no more than a bone tossed at organized labour given that Patrick Dillon was among the first appointees to the appointments council. He’s the business manager and secretary treasurer of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario.

Karen Renkema of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada says, optics aside, the biggest issue is the lack of a value proposition.

“They’re increasing fees 600 per cent, but what are we getting for it?” she asks. “That’s the crux of it.”

She says the inspections and enforcement by the college are a duplication of work now done by bodies such as the Technical Standards and Safety Authority and the Ministry of Labour.

To many, she says, it’s just a tax on trades and a nice reward for the powerful construction union lobby that wants to tighten its grip on all of the trades.

The consumer will end up paying, she suggests. “It will drive trades further into the underground economy. If have $15,000 for a kitchen renovation, are you going to hire a guy who can do most of the work himself and charge no tax or are you going to hire eight different trades and break your budget? This is $84 million for another Bay Street bureaucracy.”

It’s a good point, but here’s the twist: If it was all about the unions, why appoint former Conservative cabinet minister David Tsubouchi as registrar and CEO? He’s hardly a loony leftie.

Tsubouchi himself shrugs at the question. “I have a lot of experience in this area. I was the minister who set up the Real Estate Council of Ontario and our government set up the teacher’s college.”

The premise, he insists, isn’t political. It’s about making the trades more accountable to the public, establishing a registry to check certificates and qualifications before hiring someone, and rooting out the bad trades workers and criminal elements. It’s also about promoting the trades, encouraging apprenticeship as a career path, and working with stakeholders to determine the right apprentice ratios.

“Only the 22 compulsory trades have to register; the rest are optional,” says Tsubouchi. “We hope they do register and see it as a badge of pride.”

Tsubouchi does a good job with the spin but he can’t hide the reality that this was a bad idea, a make-work project, and a duplication of existing government services from the get-go.

 Ian Harvey has been a journalist for 35 years writing about a diverse range of issues including legal and political affairs. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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